'I don't have anything in my refrigerator': GOP debt ceiling plan would cut SNAP benefits at tough time

 Breakfast or dinner?

That’s a choice Ruth Rodriquez often has to make for her family since losing the extra food stamp benefits provided during the pandemic.

“I have been drinking a lot of coffee and a lot of water just so I could spare my plate of food for them,” Rodriquez, a single mom in Camden, New Jersey, told USA TODAY.

Since losing the added benefits, the family of four teeters on the edge of facing food insecurity along with families across the country  a struggle that could be further exasperated by proposed Republican spending cuts in the stalled debt limit negotiations.

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SNAP benefits at risk

People wait in line at a food bank on July 15, 2022, in Oakland, Calif.

Congress enacted emergency legislation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP, to receive the maximum monthly benefit regardless of income in an effort to address rising food insecurity and stimulate the economy.

With nearly $400 in extra assistance, Rodriquez didn’t have to worry about how to feed her family or give up a meal to make sure her kids – adult child and two growing teens – had enough to eat.

“When we got the extra food stamps, it was a blessing. It took a lot of the burden off my back,” Rodriquez said. “We had constant food. The kids were able to take breakfast and lunch to school with them, always have something for dinner or if they got hungry in the middle of the night.”

But now, nearly three years since its passage, millions of households are struggling to afford food as they face decreases in monthly assistance after the expiration of the added benefits earlier this year.

When her kids ask for something to eat, Rodriquez now cringes because she doesn’t have much to offer to them anymore.

“It’s hard. Like right now I don’t have anything in my refrigerator,” Rodriquez said. “I just went out and got a gallon of milk and a box of pancake mix because I had about $19 left in my food stamps card because I’m trying to stretch it as much as possible until my next payout.”

To keep up with her bills, the 42-year-old mom has to work longer hours throughout the week at her retail job because $17 an hour, 40 hours a week, is not sufficient to cover her rent, monthly bills and food costs. But even with the overtime, it's not always enough.

"I have to bring home that extra money if I want to have a little bit set aside for any other expenses," Rodriquez said. "We’re literally living from paycheck to paycheck."

Proposed GOP cuts to SNAP could leave millions food insecure

As the nation rapidly approaches the debt ceiling deadline, which economists say could result in a catastrophic default, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Republicans laud a plan that could cut many off from federal food assistance.

McCarthy’s plan, which includes $4.5 trillion in spending cuts, would raise the age limit for SNAP’s work requirements for “abled bodies individuals” without dependents from 50 to 56. Such a reform, if signed into law, could affect nearly one million Americans between the ages of 50 to 55, the nonpartisan research and policy institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

Currently, individuals 18 through 49 who don’t have children are required to work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits through SNAP unless they qualify for exemptions. Those who don’t meet the minimum work hours requirement are limited up to three months of benefits every three years.

Households with dependents 17 and younger are among those excused from SNAP’s work requirements and three-month time limit. However, such an exemption is also at risk of being eliminated.  

More:23 Republicans want to make it harder to get SNAP benefits. Here's how.

Nearly two dozen House Republicans co-sponsored legislation in March that would impose stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults without children, making it harder for some Americans to receive food stamps.

The bill, led by South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson, would narrow a work requirement exemption for households with children, allowing only those with children under the age of 7 to qualify instead of the current cutoff of 18. The legislation would also raise the maximum age like in the debt limit plan, but from 49 to 65 – a more drastic increase than McCarthy’s plan.

More than 10 million people – one in four SNAP participants – would be at risk of losing their food assistance benefits under Johnson’s proposal, according to the CBPP.

Most families struggling to afford enough food

Rodriquez is just one parent among many across the nation already struggling to afford food for their children since the end of the pandemic-era supplemental benefits.  

While some states let their increased benefits expire earlier, those in 32 states lost their increased pandemic SNAP funds in March.

ParentsTogether Action, a nonprofit parent and family advocacy group that represents more than three million families, found that most households are already struggling to feed their children just one month after the benefits expired in all U.S. states in a survey first exclusively given to USA TODAY.

More:Extra SNAP benefits are ending. Here's what you can do to offset the loss.

Some 63% percent of parents said they were finding it hard to make ends meet, with 68% saying that having food on the table was their biggest challenge since the benefits expired, according to the survey of 550 primarily low-and-middle-income parents polled April 6-9.

“Families are struggling," Ailen Arreaza, Executive Director of ParentsTogether told USA TODAY. "Losing the boosted SNAP benefits has really hurt them and the fact that right now Congress is thinking about cutting SNAP even more – Republicans in Congress are thinking about cutting SNAP even more – is ridiculous and just points to the fact that they’re really out of touch with what families need. What parents and kids really need."

The survey also found that 44% of parents can no longer afford enough food for their households, with 37% of parents reporting that they've had skipped meals to feed their children and 53% of families who faced a decrease in SNAP benefits last month saying they now needed to rely on food banks or similar services.

“In a sense I’m kind of embarrassed, but then again…I’m not the only one that’s struggling right now," Rodriquez said.

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