The gap between the typical cost of a family's food and average food stamp benefits may be one reason New York City has seen near-record numbers of families at place like the Department of Homeless Services' PATH intake center (right).

Photo by: Abrahami/Adi Talwar

The gap between the typical cost of a family’s food and average food stamp benefits may be one reason New York City has seen near-record numbers of families at place like the Department of Homeless Services’ PATH intake center (right).

While it doesn’t endear him to the food-stamp-hatin’ Newt Gingrich crowd, Mayor Bloomberg’s expansion of the federal nutrition benefit might rank as one of the signal accomplishments of his mayoralty. From January 2003 to the first month of this year, the number of New Yorkers receiving food stamp benefits increased from 830,000 to more than 1.8 million, a leap of 118 percent.

But a new report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness finds that food stamps are still having a less beneficial impact than you might think—for reasons beyond Bloomberg’s control. The study concludes that the average food stamp benefit covers only part of a family’s food bill in New York City, meaning food stamp recipients might still have to choose between dinner and rent.

While it’s not news that life on food stamps lacks luxury, the numbers are pretty stark. According to the report, “In New York City in 2010, the average SNAP family had an average monthly income of $1,419. They received $287 a month in benefits, and had an average monthly food bill of $619. Because of this $332 shortfall, almost 25 percent of the average monthly incomes of families receiving SNAP benefits were devoted to food costs.”

The problem, says ICPH, is largely that food stamp benefits (now officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, or SNAP, benefits) don’t reflect regional variations in food prices—they are set as if a gallon of milk is the same in Cheyenne as it is in Cypress Hills.

That’s a federal problem—they set the SNAP levels—but it might be exacerbating a very local concern: the homelessness crisis that, as of Monday night, had 40,600 people sleeping in city shelters.

Bloomberg vowed in 2004 to reduce homelessness by two-thirds in five years. According to the city’s annual street census, the number of people sleeping out decreased by 40 percent from 2005 to 2011. But the far larger shelter population has held steady or grown since then. ICPH links that to the shortfall in food stamp benefits: If food stamps covered a realistic food bill, and families had to spend less to eat, they’d have more for rent. The math is not challenging.

For those who view food stamps as just another government handout to lazy people, the expansion of the rolls in New York since 2002 is more anathema than accomplishment. But those who look closely realize the SNAP program is mainly an income-supplement for poorly paid workers—if anything, the folks getting a handout are their employers, who can get away without covering the basic needs of their workforce. From a fiscal point of view, it’s a no-brainer for local governments, who pay a nominal amount to administer the program but enjoy the large economic impact of benefits that are fully paid by the feds.

While anti-hunger advocates still clash with the Bloomberg administration over its refusal to accept a waiver of food-stamp time limits for childless, non-disabled adults and for its insistence on finger-imaging as a way to fight food stamp fraud, no one denies that fundamental progress has been made. Back in the summer of 2002, the Community Food Resource Center estimated that as many as 900,000 New Yorkers who were eligible for food stamps weren’t receiving them. Since then, it appears that the city’s Human Resources Administration has enrolled that population, and then some.

Nationwide, some 45 million people received food stamps last year from the Obama administration, 61 percent more than did in George W. Bush’s last year in office. This is why Gingrich has called Obama our “food stamp president.” But the 28 million who received the benefits in 2008 under President Bush represented a 65 percent increase over Bill Clinton’s last year in the White House.

Increasing food stamp usage seems to have been a bipartisan affair. Will the next “food stamp president” (or “food stamp Congress”) consider adjusting the benefits to reflect reality?

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