Nearly one in five Georgians now gets federal assistance to put dinner on the table.
As Congress debates the future of the food stamp program, with Republicans looking to cut it back, the number of recipients in Georgia has ballooned to 1.9 million as of April, or nearly 20 percent of the population. The state's 0.4 percent increase from March was the seventh largest growth rate in the country, making Georgia one of 13 states where the number of beneficiaries rose, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.
"The job numbers are starting to get better recently, but the poverty rate still is very high and unemployment is still very high," said Alan Essig, executive director of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. "I don't expect to see our food stamp numbers start to drop until our job numbers start dramatically improving."
Republicans say they do not intend to pull the rug out from the truly needy. But, in tight budget times and with the economy improving, they say it has become too easy for people to get the benefits — which come through electronic cards for use in food stores. In most states, the number of recipients is falling, while Georgia has one of the fastest-growing food stamp rolls.
Congress is working on a new five-year Farm Bill, which covers spending on farm subsidies, nutrition benefits and other programs. Many Republicans are seeking food stamp enrollment restrictions in that bill and a quicker end to short-term benefit increases designed for the recession. Democrats, for the most part, are attempting to keep the program as-is.
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Courtney Taylor of Norcross said she is hoping for the latter. After her daughter Camryn was born a year ago, Taylor started receiving the benefits. Without the roughly $300 per month, she said her child's diet would suffer.
"It would definitely mean I have to sacrifice a lot more," said Taylor, 23, who is studying accounting at Georgia Perimeter College and works as a waitress. "With the amount I get, I'm able to help my baby eat healthier. I don't want her to eat junk food. [With this] I can give her fresh fruits and vegetables."
Major changes to the program were defeated in the Democrat-run Senate, which trims food stamps by $4.5 billion over five years. The Republican-controlled House's version of the Farm Bill, to be considered in committee next week, cuts the program by an estimated $16 billion.
Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said it does not make sense to maintain or increase food stamp funding over the next half-decade if the economy is improving and thus fewer people will need the assistance.
"While we still need to make adequate provision for folks that are struggling over that five-year period, we need to think in terms of moving that [spending] number down," he said.
Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat, disagreed, saying food stamp spending in the Farm Bill should be increased at the expense of farm subsidies.
"When you're cutting benefits for poor people, it's immoral at a time when more and more people need those benefits," he said.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts that, under current policy, food stamp spending will peak next year at $82 billion before it starts to fall due to an improving economy.
Laura Lester, advocacy and education director with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said the increase of enrollment in the program means that it is working. But still, it's often not enough to cover a family's needs, she said.
"What we hear from grocery stores is that people go at midnight and fill up their cart. And at 12:01, when money goes on the card, they pay for it," she said. "You don't do that unless you have hungry people at home."
Lester said talk of reducing the program couldn't come at a worse time. The ACFB provides emergency food to more than 700 partner organizations through metro Atlanta and North Georgia, serving roughly 3 million people a year. They're not able to do much more, she said.
"Our food distribution over the past two years has gone up 30 percent a year. We can't do any more. The private charity safety net ... is stretched far beyond capacity," she said. Reducing or tightening eligibility requirements to the program "is not only devastating for the families, but for the communities trying to support them."
The 2009 stimulus bill increased the maximum benefit for families receiving food stamps and the average per-person payment was $133 per month last year. Many states have made it easier for families to get into the program by linking it to other forms of assistance. This enables some families to get around the program's asset and income limits, though, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just 2.9 percent of food stamp recipients lived in households that exceeded the program's income limits in 2010.
The House Farm Bill limits "categorical enrollment" for households that qualify for other kinds of assistance. Some conservatives are pushing for a full-scale overhaul of the program.
In a forthcoming paper, Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley of the conservative Heritage Foundation argue that the federal government should cut the program's funding and require participants to take drug tests and actively search for jobs if they are unemployed.
"It remains a program that discourages work, rewards idleness, and promotes long-term dependence," they wrote.
Steve Ellis, of Washington-based nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the fact that the Farm Bill pairs nutrition programs with farm subsidies allows an "unholy alliance" of rural and urban members of Congress.
"You have to look at it very skeptically and make sure the program is operating at the best possible level," Ellis said. "And, for too long, I think people have circled the wagons around the program rather than deliver a better product for taxpayers and people receiving food stamps."
According to the ACFB, the average length of time a Georgian receives the assistance is nine months.
That's about how long Cliff Lovette, of Morningside, received the benefits in 2010. The once highly paid entertainment attorney had seen his income flatten after a series of financial and business setbacks. A divorce drained his savings, he said, and he had two children to feed.
Lovette said he applied to the program a couple of times before he was accepted, and that it met a crucial need during the hardest financial period of his life.
Lovette, who stopped using the assistance after finding employment as general counsel to an Internet company, said political leaders should look for cuts elsewhere.
"This is something a lot of these people depend on, and the difference between having $200 may be the difference between them being able to eat," Lovette said. "It's a very basic human need. Moreso than even medical insurance or anything like that. It would be devastating to them."