Budget cuts aimed at weaning Americans off of public assistance may make the start of 2014 lean for many African-Americans.

Last month, after much debate, Congress began implementing it’s budget cut plan to reduce funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program otherwise known as SNAP. The program provides monetary help for families in poverty and alleviates food insecurity. SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is used by approximately 47 million Americans. But with funding reductions and bans for convicted felons many people wonder how Americans will finally be able to climb out of poverty.

Who needs SNAP?

The Recovery Act of 2009 (otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill) provided a temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Then, Congress voted in 2010 to cut $11 billion in funding for the SNAP Benefits. The first fiscal year cut occurred last month, subtracting $5 billion from the program. There will be two more fiscal year cuts to come before September 2014.  Approximately one in four African-American households will be affected by the cuts in the SNAP program. That means, a family of four would lose $36 a month in assistance.

Food assistance creates a healthier environment and helps many families climb out of poverty.  Research has shown that food stamps help to stabilize the economy during this crisis by allowing families to use money that would be earmarked for food to go to other expenses such as rent and utilities. Eighty-three percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children, elderly persons, or disabled persons. Children who live in households that receive food assistance were less likely to suffer from chronic illnesses or be at risk for developmental delays.

Now that benefits are being cut families are challenged to make ends meet. Parents who rely on WIC are trying to see how far their benefits will last throughout the month before they resort to local churches and charity organizations. Chanel Turner, BSW, lead social worker for Hoke County Health Department in Raeford, North Carolina said the current benefits are barely enough as it is. Reducing the allotment only exacerbates the issue.

“Some of the problems I’ve become aware of were families not being able to ‘stretch’ their amount of food stamps to the end of the month,” Turner says. “The mothers explain that although the amount of help has changed, the number of people in the household and their families’ appetites has not.”

Turner explains that many moms on WIC use their food stamps to buy the extra cans of formula needed between vouchers. But with the decrease in the amount of assistance, many of them say it’s not possible to buy the extra cans now.

Banning Convicted Felons from SNAP Benefits

In 1996, a federal law was put into place to ban convicted felons from receiving food assistance from SNAP or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).  In November 2013, an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill of 2013 was added, extending the lifetime food stamps ban to sex offenders and murderers.  States were allowed to opt out of the law or modify it. So far, 16 states have opted out, 24 states have implemented it with modifications. But 10 states have adopted this law in its entirety.  Experts say this law will only force people to engage in risky behavior and lead to recidivism.

In the case of drug offenses, food stamp bans create problems for African-Americans and women. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 575,000 people are locked up on drug charges.  The ACLU says that African-Americans are incarcerated on drug charges 10 times more often than Whites. Women who are incarcerated for drug possession or use, for example, are banned from receiving benefits, which in turn can be problematic when they return home and have to provide for their children again. Some states such as California have adopted a modified version of the law. They modified the food assistance ban to include people convicted of selling drugs but not people who possess or use it.

However, risky behaviors can ensue when a person is denied benefits due to past incarceration.  A study out of Yale University found that food assistance bans put people at higher risk for HIV and other negative consequences. Women and mothers may turn to prostitution in order to get money for food. Men may feel compelled to repeat the offenses that got them convicted the first time because they are trying to provide for a family.  Mark Matthews, consultant and advocate for Clean Slate America in Baltimore, Maryland, says that this ban is additional punishment for crimes that are supposed to be forgiven.

“The proposed cuts to SNAP continues the trend of perpetual punishment that is being inflicted on the African-American community,” he says. “But now it takes it to another level. Denial of food, which not only affects the offender and their family members, is another indication of the lack of regard for essential human rights to citizens who have served time to satisfy the judicial system.”

As a part of a long-range plan by Congress, SNAP benefits will continue to be reduced between now and September 2014. The amounts of the next two reductions remains to be seen.

Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance health writer in Washington, DC.  She blogs for TheBody.com, The Black AIDS Institute, and Examiner.com. She is the health reporter for Capital Community News.