SAN JOSE -- The explosive growth of Californians resorting to food stamps is a stark example of the Great Recession's lingering economic devastation. The program's size has nearly doubled over the past five years with almost 4.2 million low-income residents now receiving assistance.
That safety net could be in jeopardy for hundreds of thousands in the state -- either by losing their food stamps entirely or seeing cuts in their monthly benefits -- under a proposal being debated in Congress.
House Republicans, who narrowly passed a measure last week that would slice $40 billion over the next 10 years from the federal program, say their aim is not to hurt society's most vulnerable. Rather, they believe this is a much-needed overhaul to a bloated entitlement that has grown to $80 billion a year, and primarily will encourage able-bodied adults to get back into the workforce.
Senate Democrats, who have proposed more modest trims of $4 billion, counter that booting an estimated 3.8 million people off food stamp rolls nationally at a time of continued high unemployment would be disastrous for those dependent on the government for food assistance.
No matter the intent of the GOP cuts, local residents are alarmed.
"People will go hungry," said Christian Luna, Sacred Heart Community Services' public benefits program manager. "This is going to affect real people, every day, as they try to feed their kids."
The end of the federal fiscal year is Monday, and any legislation will require political compromise, which is in short supply in Washington, D.C.
Food stamps, which are part of the farm bill, always are a lightning rod in the heated debate about how to best address poverty. That's especially the case with the current mood of hyperpartisanship. Caught in the middle are a record 47 million people -- nearly one in seven Americans -- who receive aid. And populous California has the most people in the program, which is known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and here as CalFresh.
At the same time, the state has one of the lowest rates of participation, with about 55 percent of eligible Californians receiving food stamps. That's because California historically has made it harder than other states to access benefits.
While the process has been streamlined, partially explaining the jump since 2008 when about 2.3 million Californians received food stamps, the real driver to the surge has been the recession and slow recovery. That's why social services advocates are warning that even small cuts could have big consequences for low-income families.
"It would be really devastating because it affects working-poor households, seniors and children," said Kerry Birnbach of the California Food Policy Advocates. "This is not only about putting food on the table. The program also acts as economic stimulus as people spend the money."
Half of Americans benefiting from the program are younger than 18. Today, the average monthly benefit of food stamps is $133 per person. In California, it's $152.
The House Republican plan is designed to reduce the program spending by 5 percent. It would create broader work requirements, including allowing states to make able-bodied adults with a child older than age 1 to work at least 20 hours each week if child care is available. There also would be new restrictions on so-called "categorical eligibility," which will make it more difficult for people who receive other benefits to also qualify for food stamps.
In a Washington Post profile this week of Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., the plan's architect, the congressman talked about his belief that the country needs to alter its approach toward solving poverty.
Speaking to a group that was receiving job training, Southerland said: "I believe that being dependent makes you more vulnerable. I believe working is the greatest gift you will ever receive."
But according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, food stamps have kept 4.7 million people out of poverty. The report also projects those receiving food stamps will drop to 34.3 million by 2023 without any changes.
"SNAP participation mirrors the economy," Birnbach said. "As the economy improves, the number of people in SNAP will go down. But low-income workers will be the last to feel that recovery, which is why the numbers are still growing."
Birnbach said 350,000 Californians could be dropped because of tightened work requirements. An additional 280,000 residents might lose their benefits because of the eligibility changes. Also, 300,000 households could face monthly reductions averaging $60 under another part of the proposal.
Caroline Danielson, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, said cutbacks will translate into more poverty.
"As a nation, philosophically, there's a trend toward linking benefits to work," she added. "But with the recession, are jobs really available? And do we want to cut people off the program without work?"
The monthly benefit already is scheduled to be trimmed Nov. 1 as a federal stimulus provision expires. A family of four will receive $36 less each month.
As the political debate continues, Sacred Heart's Luna said Santa Clara County food pantries typically see a spike of people coming in the last week of each month. Their food stamps, he said, often have run out.
"A lot of the folks we help are out there looking for work or are working, and just can't make ends meet," Luna said. "Nobody is living large off their benefits."
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.