Health

More than 651,000 Kentuckians — about 15 percent of the state’s population — get federal help buying food through what used to be known as food stamps. Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, its funding is at risk of being cut this year. Congressional Republicans are eyeing reforms, and last year President Trump included big cuts to SNAP in his proposed budget.

But many already have trouble affording groceries even under the current program. And people like Louisville resident Donald Platoff, who receives $17 in SNAP benefits every month, wonder what is left to cut.

“That doesn’t pay for anything ma’am, not being rude,” he said of his $17 allowance. “I have to drink almond milk because of my health, and by the time you get your almond milk, your bread, and you get your eggs, it’s almost all gone. And it’s just ridiculous. It’s not even worth getting to be quite honest.”

SNAP Is A Supplement

Platoff lives in a one-bedroom apartment in St. Matthews decorated with clay animal figurines. He painted these figurines at art classes his mental health clinic used to offer.  Platoff has a disability — schizoaffective disorder, a mental health condition marked by disillusions and paranoia.

That disability is why he receives around $800 a month from Social Security. The money pays for his rent and his transportation to and from his daily volunteering gig at a hospital. Because of that income, he gets the smallest amount possible from SNAP, according to James Ziliak, the founder of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

“So the [SNAP] benefit gets reduced by all of those government transfers, Social Security Disability, whatever. Those all count against the size of the SNAP benefit,” Ziliak said.

Ziliak says the very nature of SNAP, that it’s meant as a supplement, means it doesn’t stretch far enough for many families and people like Donald Platoff. During the recent Great Recession, the program was extended to more people and benefits got bigger, but those extensions have recently been scaled back.

In Kentucky, for instance, about 9,000 people lost SNAP benefits late last year. That was because adults with no children or disabilities between 18 and 49 are now required to work a certain number of hours or do activities like job training to qualify — eligibility criteria that was in place pre-Recession.

Nationally, 80 percent of SNAP money is spent within the first two weeks of the month. And Ziliak said that means people are often left turning to charities and non-profits for help feeding themselves and their families.

Filling The Food Gaps

Donald Platoff supplements his $17 monthly SNAP benefits by relying on a daily hot meal for seniors delivered by a Jewish community center. Many others turn to a food pantry.  Tamara Sandberg, the head of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, said 65 percent of households that get groceries from food pantries also qualify for SNAP.

“The charitable sector is already struggling to keep up with demand for emergency food assistance in Kentucky,” she said. “So that’s why we’re adamant that the program needs to be strengthened and not reduced in any way.”

Platoff says many of the people he knows in similar situations do rely on food pantries.

“Thank God I don’t have to do that, yet,” he said.

Across Kentucky, the average SNAP benefit is $120 a month per household member, and the maximum amount allowed is $192 a month. Currently, states only have to pay a small amount toward SNAP administrative costs, but President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would increase the states’ share to a quarter of the cost of the program.

Sandberg said the result would likely be more cuts to benefits and eligibility.

“We just think it would pull the rug out from beneath the most vulnerable in society,” Sandberg said.

Platoff, meanwhile, said if Congress is going to reform food assistance programs, they should talk about increasing SNAP benefits — not taking them away.

“I understand it’s just supposed to be a supplement. But $17 as a supplement for monthly grocery is absolutely a joke. It’s just a joke,” Platoff said. “Think about the people behind it, and what would happen if you cut of the nutrition program.”

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.