CHICAGO | When Larry Bossom lost his information technology job a few months ago, he turned to a Chicago food pantry and the federal food stamps program to help make ends meet. On Friday, the 41-year-old became one of roughly 2 million Illinois residents whose food stamps benefits are being reduced.
"It's been a nice stopgap," he said while picking up cereal and other goods at St. Ignatius Food Pantry on the city's North Side. "You always figure out how to get by."
Friday was the first day a temporary benefit from the 2009 economic stimulus bolstering food stamp money was not available. A family of four could see up to $36 less a month through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The cut also comes as federal lawmakers are negotiating further reductions to the program, which has more than doubled in cost since 2008.
The change will affect about 47 million Americans. In Illinois, about 349,000 seniors and disabled people and roughly 886,000 children statewide will be see reductions, according to the Illinois Hunger Coalition.
"This couldn't have come at a worse time," said Diane Doherty, executive director of the coalition that runs a hunger hotline. "It's right before the holidays, and right before it's more difficult for parents because there's so much hype about presents and their fear about whether or not they're going to have a Thanksgiving dinner."
Along with disappointment and anxiety about further cuts, many low-income residents complained Friday that people simply didn't know they were coming. State and federal officials said it will take several days for people to see exactly how much money they'll be down each month.
Liliana Gonzalez, who came to the Chicago pantry with her two children, heard about the change for the first time Friday. The fast food worker said she'd probably be cutting back on meat purchases.
"It's difficult," she said.
Officials with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers the federal program in Illinois, said they notified people through an automated help line, social media and fliers at local offices. But the federal government shutdown put them behind because of uncertainty about whether there would be a food stamp program, said IDHS spokeswoman Januari Smith. She said mailing notices to all Illinoisans in the program would cost at least $500,000, money that isn't available.
"We did our due diligence to notify people the best we could," Smith said.
How much a person gets in benefits varies based on factors such as food prices and income. In the past five years, the number of people in SNAP has spiked with the downturned economy.
Sara Avelar, 23, has three children ranging in age from 10 months to 5 years old. She estimated that her benefits were down roughly $50 a month. The unemployed woman has been living with family and looking for cashier work.
"It's like two cans of formula," she said while picking up dried beans and canned goods at the Chicago pantry.
The food stamps program has been a target of Republicans looking to reduce federal spending. Farm bills passed by both the House and Senate would slash food stamps on top of Friday's reductions.
Zorita Morales, 45, and her son get about $300 a month in the program. She hadn't seen what the bottom line was for her, but the potential for more federal cuts had the unemployed woman worried as she picked up her monthly staples in Chicago.
"I'm already looking for work," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."