food stamps

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Thanksgiving on Food Stamps, by the Numbers

Courtesy of Flickr/Loren Javier

Courtesy of Flickr/Loren Javier

For the record 47 million people who rely on food stamps — about 1 in 7 Americans —  paying the cost of a full Thanksgiving meal tomorrow may be a bit tougher than it was last year.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

On Nov. 1, monthly benefits for most families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were reduced by about 5 percent. That amounts to roughly $36 in cuts per month for a family of four — from $668 to $632 — based on maximum benefit levels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency overseeing the program. The reductions stem from Congress’ refusal to renew about $5 billion in additional benefits that were provided as part of the 2009 stimulus bill. 

So how does that translate in Thanksgiving dollars?

In its annual survey, the Farm Bureau Federation — a conservative group — calculated the average cost (nationwide) of all the standard fixings in a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people at about $49 – or $4.90 per person. Even assuming the cheapest ingredients and small portion sizes, it’s a very conservative and somewhat dubious estimate and obviously varies significantly by region. But for the sake of argument, let’s use it. (See the last Lowdown post for the breakdown of costs.)  

Meanwhile, the maximum amount of SNAP benefits for one person is now $189, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in its analysis of USDA data. But the more mouths to feed, the smaller the per-person benefit. For instance, the $632 per month in benefits that a family of four receives comes out to roughly $158 per person per month, or just about $1.76 per person per meal (assuming 90 meals a month).

Now take a family of 10: with maximum monthly SNAP benefits of $1,421, the family receives a little more than $142 per person, or roughly $1.58 per person per meal.

Of course, comparing that directly to the surprisingly low $4.90-per-person estimated cost of the average Thanksgiving meal is enough to give any economist an ulcer. It’s certainly not apples to apples (or, in this case, drumsticks to drumsticks). For starters, most families receiving SNAP benefits earn at least some additional income and don’t rely entirely on those subsidies for all their food needs.

Pew Charitable Trusts

Click to view interactive map

However, it does underscore the reality that a growing number of Americans are now struggling to put a meal on the table, especially during the most food-centric of American holidays — typically the busiest time of the year for food banks across the country.

The number of people receiving food stamps is up about a million from last year, and more than double what it was a decade ago. Almost half of recipients are children, and about two-thirds of the adults are women.

Even so, many Republicans in Congress continue to push for deeper cuts to the SNAP program, which is authorized in the five-year omnibus farm bill that covers all agricultural programs. The SNAP program has expanded markedly over the past decade, prompting  conservative critics to argue that it encourages dependence among those who don’t necessarily need it, and is fiscally inefficient and prone to fraud. A House version of the new farm bill proposes program cuts of an additional $40 billion over 10 years. The Senate version would result in around $4 billion in cuts.