WASHINGTON – Demand for food stamps in Minnesota rose dramatically in the past decade, and remains high even as the economy improved in recent years. That has anti-hunger advocates in the state preparing to fight cuts in federal food assistance proposed by the Trump administration.
"I do believe that many of the supports for families living on the economic edge are at risk," said Christine Pulver, director of the basic needs program at Keystone Community Services, which operates several food shelves. Keystone is preparing for a 10 percent increase in food shelf use over the next year.
Minnesota has seen a 268-percent increase in the number of people on food stamps since 2007, the earliest days of the financial crisis. While the economy has in many ways rebounded since then and food stamp use has started to tick downward, in Minnesota there are more than 453,000 people who rely on the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, or SNAP. Most are children, senior citizens or people with disabilities.
Trump's budget proposal last month would reduce SNAP funding by $190 billion over the next decade, or about a quarter of the total program. Minnesota advocates working to protect federal food stamp dollars expect that hardest hit would be people who have found work since the Great Recession but continue to struggle in low-wage jobs.
"This is such a small part of the government," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. Moriarty has visited Washington in recent weeks to meet with other anti-hunger advocates and several members of Congress. She said she believes those Minnesotans who use the program legitimately need it.
That has not been the message from the Trump administration. "If you're on food stamps and you're able-bodied, we need you to go to work," Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in May. The White House has questioned why 44 million Americans are using the program, compared with 27 million at the start of the recession.
Food-stamp funding has historically been part of the federal farm bill, which is up for renewal. Later this month, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee will hold the first of several listening sessions around the country on the next farm bill, which in addition to food stamps funds a wide range of agricultural assistance programs.
Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, of Detroit Lakes, is ranking Democrat on that committee. He thinks Trump's proposed food stamp cut will have trouble getting through Congress. But he's also concerned about efforts by some conservatives, including some House Republicans, to sever food stamp funding from the farm bill, which he suggested could imperil both the farm bill's prospects and support for food stamps.
"From somebody that represents one of the biggest farm states in the country, we don't have the votes to pass a farm bill ourselves," Peterson said. "We have to have support from urban folks and ... their part of the farm bill is food stamps."
For instance, Peterson's largely rural western Minnesota district has nearly 23,000 residents who use food stamps. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's Minneapolis-area district has the highest percentage of people using federal nutrition assistance, at 13 percent, while Rep. Jason Lewis' largely suburban southeastern Minnesota district has the lowest, at nearly 6 percent.
Like many states, Minnesota expanded eligibility for able-bodied adults without dependents during tough economic times, leading to a peak of 530,225 people on food stamps in 2013. But as unemployment levels dropped, the number of food stamp users gradually decreased, although it's still dramatically higher than pre-recession levels.
Now, able-bodied adults without kids can use the program for only three months during a three-year period unless they work 20 hours a week and meet other standards. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's rural northeast Minnesota district had the lowest proportion of food stamp households where at least one person worked in the past year: 79 percent. The congressional districts spanning Minneapolis and St. Paul had between 81 and 84 percent.
"If they took it away it would be really hard," said Lynn Nelson, a St. Paul resident who is disabled and receives $127 in federal food assistance a month. "By the time I pay rent and bills and electric, there wouldn't be much left over to be able to buy food."
Minnesota's spending on food stamps has doubled to nearly $595 million since 2007. Trump's proposal would require states to shoulder more of the costs of the program. Jim Koppel, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Human Services, said some of the growth has been driven by the Minnesota Department of Human Services' outreach to sign up more eligible seniors for the program; other explanations include the fact that many people are still financially struggling.
"The economy has recovered quite a bit, but there's been quite a stagnation in terms of lower wages," Koppel said. But he wasn't able to fully explain the high continued demand for the assistance.
"I'm a little bit at a loss to explain," Koppel said.
He predicted the impact of families losing benefits would be significant, and put pressure back on the state.
Peterson said he has a high number of people in his western Minnesota district that qualify for food stamps but don't take them. Eleven percent of people live below the poverty level, but less than 9 percent use the program.
"We've got a lot of independent folks out there that don't want the government involved in their life," Peterson said.
Peterson said he's open to changes in food stamp funding. He said one of his biggest problems with the program is that it allows states to expand eligibility beyond federal requirements and make the federal government pay for it.
Judy Hvinden, a St. Paul retiree, said when she was still in the workforce she would hear about people struggling on limited incomes and wonder why they didn't budget more effectively. "I'm certainly finding out why," said, explaining that even the $16 a month she gets in food stamps is a major help as she tries to keep up with rent and medical costs on a fixed income.
"It's like a really good food coupon," said Hvinden. "Everything helps."