Bags full of groceries surround Monique Butler as she waits for her ride home. The mother of two is visiting the Loaves and Fishes food pantry in Uptown, which First Presbyterian Church folded into its campus years ago, because she's run out of options. Either she collects free food — which will hopefully last her through the rest of November — from the makeshift grocery store, or her and her children, ages 5 and 6, go hungry.
Butler wouldn't have been here, at this place or in this situation, a few weeks ago. But recent cuts to her food stamps have left the single mother without help during an especially difficult time of year. Butler and 47 million others across the country are starting to feel the effects of $11 billion in automatic cuts over the next three years to food stamps benefits, which the 2009 stimulus bill bolstered to help the poor through the recession. In Mecklenburg County, the cuts have affected the 161,000 people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and amount to $1.5 million a month. A family of four now receives an average of $36 less a month, a family of three $29. These seemignly small amounts can be the difference between everyone in the family eating every day and a few going without.
Though they were always meant to expire, the loss of the additional funds, coupled with a statewide reduction in unemployment benefits, a technical glitch and a calendar anomaly, have made this year one of the hardest for many North Carolinians.
Republicans are usually known for reducing such government spending, but in this case, both parties are responsible.
Days before the cuts took effect, some congressional Democrats held a press conference asking for Congress — i.e., Republicans — to reconsider. "Shame on this Congress for allowing this to happen," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, said at the time.
But as a Huffington Post story pointed out, an overwhelming majority of Democrats, including those who took the podium that October day, passed two bills in 2010 that expedited the boost cut-off date and used future food stamps stimulus funds for other priority spending measures, such as preventing teacher layoffs. They vowed at the time to replace the funds but never did.
"The politics of this is that both parties had the chance to have not let this end, and they both let it end," says Loaves and Fishes Executive Director Beverly Howard. "So you really can't blame anybody."
The GOP's strategy has simply been more transparent. The Republican-controlled House passed a bill in September that would gut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of $40 billion in the next 10 years.
To Howard, who's been with Loaves for 25 years, this year is second to 2009, which saw the depths of the recession, for the most difficult.Last October, North Carolina started using a new electronic system, N.C. Fast, for processing food-stamp applications. A technical glitch caused backlog that took some parts of the state a year to work through, including Mecklenburg County, leaving thousands without food. As soon as the state caught up, the stimulus fund cuts came.
In February of this year, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a measure that reduced unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 a week, saying at the time the cuts were necessary to reimburse the federal government the roughly $3 billion North Carolina borrowed during the recession to pay the benefits. In addition to its regular clientele, which is mostly the working poor, Loaves and Fishes is seeing more "wish they were working" poor.
"It seems to me that North Carolina has taken some steps to balance the budget on the backs of poor people," Howard says. "It causes unbelievable suffering."
Then with the holidays comes an event that only happens once every 70,000 years: For the first time, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day, leaving one less week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some have delighted in the anomaly, dubbing it "Thanksgivukkah," but others likely won't find the fluke so amusing. One less week between Thanksgiving and Christmas means one less week of wages for hourly minimum wage workers — many of the people who supplement their grocery budget with food stamps — between two costly holidays. The average Thanksgiving meal for 10 people cost $49 this year, or about a day's worth of pay for minimum-wage workers, according to a blog written before Thanksgiving by the U.S. Department of Labor.
"For them, putting any meal on the table, let alone a multi-course feast, is a penny-squeezing struggle," wrote department Secretary Tom Perez. "So while many Americans will be loosening their belts after helpings of turkey and stuffing, it's another day of belt-tightening for workers trying to get by on the minimum wage."
Nearly half of the 126,000 people who utilized Loaves and Fishes in Mecklenburg County last year were under the age of 18.
"Whether or not they don't have food because of some decision made in Washington, or whether or not they don't have food because an adult in their life has made a poor choice, they are truly the victims," Howard says.
Butler doesn't mention herself much when she talks about why she's at Loaves.
"I can go a few days without eating," she says. "[But] what does a mother do when she can't feed her children?"