CHICAGO — Although he struggled financially for years, it wasn't until Carl Hoppe was forced to leave his job as a minister and school administrator that he found it nearly impossible to feed his family, he said.
When his income declined to less than half of his old salary, he first turned to local food pantries for help filling his cabinets and stocking the refrigerator, he said. And then, Hoppe and his wife reluctantly applied for food stamps.
"If we didn't have (food stamps), we'd have some problems when it comes to eating," said Hoppe, 60, who lives with his wife and two young sons in Blue Island, Ill. "We don't have it for luxury. We still don't go out to eat for dinner or anything. We stick around the house and use what we've been given."
As wealthy and middle-class Americans keep an eye on Washington to see if a solution to the "fiscal cliff" will mean an increase in their annual tax bills, Chicago's poorest residents are looking at how they too may be affected. Besides legislation that would mainly affect taxes, also on the table are cuts to a wide range of social programs — some that are vital to hunger relief, officials said.
For example, the farm bill — which sets guidelines and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, among other matters — expired in September, and has not been renewed as Congress continues to debate how the aid programs it supports should work.
And now some aid organizations fear that a bill that would stiffen the SNAP requirements to qualify for food stamps in Illinois could be approved as a part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, said Bob Dolgan, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
That legislation would cut at least 2 million residents from the food stamp program, and decrease the amount of aid 500,000 Americans get every month, he said. For agencies that help feed the poor, there is concern that changes to the SNAP program would put even more pressure on food pantries and soup kitchens that are already struggling to help feed the needy, Dolgan said. Critics of the SNAP program and government spending, however, argue that too many families have become dependent on government aid. And it is difficult to justify giving benefits to so many in such a short amount of time.
"The SNAP program has grown exponentially, and the eligibility standards are so broad . many people that may not need food stamps are now getting them," said Tom A. Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Schatz said SNAP is one of many government programs that need to be carefully examined and scrutinized to make sure the aid is going to the neediest.
"No one is talking about eliminating benefits for people that need them," Schatz said. "The question is, 'Who really needs them? Has this program been expanded so far that too many people are receiving the benefits that may not need them?' It's hard to take something back once someone has been receiving the benefit."
Among the proposals to curb SNAP spending would be to require food stamp recipients to report their assets when they have their eligibility reconsidered. That means that some residents who may own their home or have a vehicle could risk losing or seeing a reduction in their food stamps.
If the government is going to be fiscally responsible, officials will have to comb through all programs and find ways to cut spending, Schatz said.
"Everything needs to be re-examined and reassessed, and food stamps needs to be one of those programs looked at," Schatz said. "They way it works now, if someone does have substantial assets, in some states they can get SNAP. Those are not the kind of people that taxpayers think of as needing help buying food."
Currently, residents such as Carl Hoppe qualify for food stamps based solely on their income. So although Hoppe does own a house and a car, he can still get aid to help feed his family each month, because his income from his early retirement barely covers his mortgage and utility bills. The proposed changes come at a crucial time. Because of the economic climate, a growing number of residents are receiving food stamps, statistics show.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, the number of residents getting SNAP benefits has increased by 2.9 percent in the past year nationally, statistics show.
The portrait of a family dependent on food stamps has changed, said Diane M. Doherty, the executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition. There are families who may live in a home they own, have a member working and even have access to a car, but they still fall below the poverty line and qualify for help, she said.
"We know far too many people are working and (dependent) on SNAP because they don't earn a living wage," she said. "If Congress does nothing, that would be disastrous."
Every day Doherty gets calls from residents who are hurting and concerned. Some have to decide whether to buy food or medicine or put gas in their car. They wrestle over buying school supplies or milk or keeping the phone on, she said.
"There are kids that have to do their homework online. But if mom or dad have to make a decision between food or the Internet, that child can't do their work. They might not afford gas to go to a food pantry.
"With SNAP, they can put some food on the table until they are able to get better employment."
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Because of steady increases in food prices, families who depend on food stamps are getting less food with their aid. As a result, even families who get aid are starting to rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to help feed their families.
Between July 2011 and July 2012, visits to Cook County pantries increased by 7.8 percent, from 5.18 million visits to 5.5 million visits, statistics show.
Buying groceries has never been easy for Elizabeth Ortiz, but with a strategy and strict budget the Logan Square mother has learned how to make it work, she said.
At the beginning of the month, Ortiz uses $100 of her food stamps and buys enough fish, beef, chicken and other meats to last her and her family of four for a month. Then she takes another $100 to a discount grocery store to buy her vegetables, cooking oils, rice, cheese, canned goods and seasonings. With her remaining $52 she tries to save to buy milk, bread and eggs from week to week, she said.
When necessary, she supplements her stock by going to food pantries once she starts running low on groceries, which is typically near the end of the month.
"I learned how to stretch the food stamps. I've had to learn how to manage so at least I could get what I need," Ortiz, 44, said. "It's still hard. Every day I get up, I think 'We've got to eat today. Do we have enough?' "
Technically, her food stamps are supposed to provide groceries for her and her two sons, she said. But with an adult daughter and grandson also living in her home, she feels obligated to share her food supply.
"I see the baby and think, 'He don't know, he shouldn't have to go without,' " she said. "There are other people here and I have to feed them. I can't leave them starving. I live one day at a time and I'm grateful."
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On a recent, chilly night, residents lined up outside the Chicago Hope Food Pantry waiting to be issued a number so they could eventually fill their bags with cans of green beans, vegetable soup, rice, about a pound of ground beef, fresh potatoes and onions, peach juice and a sack of bagels.
Iman Khamis, 45, never imagined that she would have to depend on food stamps or a food pantry to eat, she said. But when she was laid off from her job at a day care center and later at a restaurant, she signed up.
"My food stamps are the only income I have right now," she said. "If I didn't have that, I guess I'd be starving."
She sat in the basement of Chicago Hope, crowded next to mothers with their young children and elderly residents who didn't speak English. She waited anxiously, watching to make sure she didn't miss her number when it was called.
"I'm only making it by coming to food pantries," she said. "I don't eat out. I buy what's on sale. I cut coupons. But I'm hardly making it."