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Food stamp users could see a benefits cut, if Congress doesn't act

The approximately 47 million Americans who rely on the modern food stamp program could see their monthly assistance cut this year because a recession-era benefits boost is set to expire.

People who receive food assistance -- now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- got a raise starting in April 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The increase in benefits, which amounted to about $80 more a month for a family of four, was part of a massive effort to help mitigate the worst effects of the Great Recession.

The temporary boost is set to expire on Oct. 31. If Congress doesn’t pass legislation to extend it, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that a family of four could see their benefits cut by about $25 a month. Smaller households would see smaller cuts.

The maximum allotment for a family of four is currently $668, but benefits levels can vary greatly. The average monthly benefit in November was $135.72 per person, or $281.21 per household, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The cut would be less than the original increase because the new rates would be set based on current food prices, which have gone up in the past few years due to inflation. The exact rate change would be clear until this summer, when new benchmarks are set.

Nevertheless, experts say the effect could be quite significant for poor individuals and families who are struggling to make ends meet.

“Families being able to afford less food is fundamentally the impact,” said Stacy Dean, co-author of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

The use of the SNAP program has increased substantially in recent years, as the country has struggled with a weak and uneven economic recovery. About 46.6 million people used the program in 2012, up from about 26.3 million in 2007, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Experts say one problem is that many poor Americans are still feeling the brutal effects of the Great Recession. The recession officially ended in mid-2009, but the recovery remains weak and unemployment remains elevated.

“The recovery isn’t playing out the same way for folks at the lower income on the income scale,” Dean said.

Most people who receive SNAP benefits are in dire financial circumstances. A report released earlier this year by the Carsey Institute, which does research on vulnerable families, found that the median annual household income for SNAP users was $18,014 in 2011, substantially lower than the nation’s median household income of $50,502 that year.

Experts say the program is one of the few places families and individuals can turn to for quick help meeting basic needs.

“It’s the largest social safety net program that is like cash,” said Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

Proponents also argue that it’s a successful program because it helps people meet a basic need. SNAP benefits can only be used for food items, and the Department of Agriculture said nearly all benefits are used at supermarkets or farmer’s markets within 30 days.

Gundersen said that he would like it if SNAP benefits were even higher. Nevertheless, he argued that the program would continue to be a key way to help poor Americans even if the benefits are scaled back.

“If you cut back on benefits, that’s going to hurt people, but it’s still going to be successful,” he said.