PITTSFIELD -- Those already struggling to make ends meet took a hit to the stomach Friday as food stamp benefits were cut as a result of inaction by Congress.
Individuals will see their maximum benefits slashed from $200 a month down to $189. The maximum cut for a family of four will be $36 a month, going from $668 a month to $632.
Food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), were increased in 2009 as part of a stimulus program approved by Congress and President Barack Obama. But Congress struggled to agree on a new Farm Bill this year, resulting in funding for SNAP being separated from the Farm Bill.
Republicans in the House were asking for larger cuts to the program, while Democrats in the Senate wanted smaller cuts. Without a new agreement, funding for the program has reverted back to the old rates.
Matt Kitsos, communications director for the state Department of Transitional Assistance, said about 480,000 people receiving benefits in Massachusetts received a letter from the department notifying them of the benefit changes.
While the department prohibits local officials from publicly commenting, he issued a statement stating that "any reduction in benefits can have a significant impact on a family."
Michael Williams, 44, of Pittsfield, just applied for benefits on Friday and has up to 7 days to be approved. He is currently staying at the Barton's Crossing homeless shelter after serving time for drug charges.
Williams has been interviewing for a job as a machinist. He is also looking to get additional training through BerkshireWorks to improve his skills.
He said he doesn't know how much he will be eligible for. He has a wife and kids but they are in West Springfield right now and he is working on getting reunited with them.
If he is considered a single person, the maximum he can receive is $189 a month. "Which is nothing," he said. "How are you going to live on $45 a week?"
Luckily, Williams said, he has been helped by friends and family. "Without that, I'd be penniless," he said.
At the Pittsfield Transitional Assistance Program office at 160 North St., several people applying for assistance were told they would have to wait up to seven days to be approved. One woman told a worker that her benefits had been cut and had to reapply.
Chris Meehan, director of the Pittsfield Transitional Assistance Program, also said he was unable to comment on the federal cuts. Applications for SNAP benefits can take up to 30 days to be reviewed, and up to seven days if the applications are expedited, he said.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said delays were put into the system by state legislators to make individuals wait for SNAP benefits "under the guise" of preventing waste. "It certainly happens sometimes," Downing said of waste. "But I'm not sure it happens as often as individuals lead others to believe."
He blamed the federal SNAP cuts on "an extreme group" in the House for "putting the health and well being of millions of people at risk. ... It shouldn't be a political football."
Earlier this year, state representatives from the Berkshire County delegation spent a week living on the amount of money that SNAP gives for food purchases. The program is an incentive "to purchase largely unhealthy food," Downing said.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., signed onto a letter with 38 other senators calling on Farm Bill negotiators to leave SNAP funding in tact.
Markey released a statement stating that "in the wealthiest nation in the world, too many of our families go hungry every day. SNAP is the most effective anti-hunger program we have. Cuts to the SNAP program will mean more families will go hungry, more children will go without nutritious meals, and millions of America's households will not be able to make ends meet."
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