SARANAC LAKE - The U.S. House of Representatives voted to gouge the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Sept. 19.
In a 217-210 roll call vote, the House GOP passed a bill that would cut $40 billion from the $78.4 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years. All 217 votes came from Republicans; every Democrat and 15 Republicans voted against the bill.
The bill must still pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama before it goes into effect.
If passed, the bill would require adults between 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or enroll in a work training program to receive benefits. It would also limit the time those recipients could get benefits to three months. Currently, states can extend food stamps benefits past three months for able-bodied people who are working or preparing for work as part of a job-training program.
The legislation would also allow states to drug test food stamp recipients and would stop lottery winners from getting benefits.
In a phone interview with the Enterprise, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens said the cuts go too far.
"I've supported in the past something between $4.5 and $10 billion in cuts," Owens said. "I think that those are reasonable levels of cuts, but you cannot essentially completely gut a program like this that does, in fact, provide very beneficial assistance to people who need it. I just think it's amazing that people want to strip away something that provides food for people who need food."
Nearly 48 million people, or about 15 percent of the population, in the United States use SNAP. North Country numbers aren't that high, but they're close.
According to 2012 census data, the population of Essex County was 38,961. The Essex County Department of Social Services reports that 3,670 individuals, or 9.4 percent of the population, relied on SNAP at the end of August 2013. At the same time last year, 3,562 people, or 9.1 percent of the population, relied on SNAP.
Franklin County is more on par with the national average. The population there was 51,795 according to last year's census data. The Franklin County Department of Social Services reports that 7,150 individuals, or 13.8 percent of the population, relied on SNAP at the end of August 2013. Last August, 6,839 individuals, or 13.2 percent of the population, relied on the program.
"It's going to adversely affect about 3,000 households in our area," Owens said. "It will affect veterans, seniors and kids. Do I think we need to cut back, make the program more efficient? Absolutely, but this is just a wholly inappropriate level of cutting."
If the cuts go through, they'd be arriving at a time when both Franklin and Essex counties are at an all-time high for SNAP recipients. Both counties have seen an increase in those numbers over the past decade even though their populations have declined.
In Franklin County the trajectory of SNAP cases shows a mostly steady incline. In Essex County, it has been more sporadic, dipping some years while increasing dramatically other years.
Owens called House Speaker John Boehner's statement that cutting SNAP benefits will help make getting Americans back to work a priority "completely fallacious.
"If you look at who the folks are who are receiving assistance, they're people who are making $8, $9, $10 an hour," Owens said. "If you do the simple math, if you have a family of two or three, that is not going to allow you to pay for transportation to work, to pay your rent and to buy food. We need to be supporting those people who are trying to get back to work so that we make sure that they continue to do that."
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand echoed Owens' sentiments in a press release.
"We know that one in four American children are hungry," Gillibrand said. "The Institute of Medicine did a report this year on SNAP/food stamps and concluded that our current safety net is inadequate in the face of hunger in the United States. In light of these facts, the House GOP has decided to pass a bill that cuts $40 billion from food stamps, directly punishing the hungry. Millions more won't be able to put food on the table if this draconian legislation were to become law. I will urge my Senate colleagues to stand together and fight these cuts in conference."