BATON ROUGE — Louisiana will end the food stamp program that helps almost one in five residents by January unless lawmakers add more money to next year’s budget for the social services agency. The Department of Children and Family Services is set to take a cut of about $34 million.
The Legislature adopted the budget, for the fiscal year that starts July 1, in the final minutes of its most recent special session . The Department of Children and Family Services says that will force it to shutter the food stamp program in 2019 because it won’t be able to pay to administer the federally funded benefits.
Officials say 19 percent of Louisiana residents receive assistance from the food stamp program, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The Department of Children and Family Services said about half of those recipients are children.
“It’s a gut-wrenching decision to make,” said Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters. “I hope and pray that none of this is going to be necessary.”
Elimination of SNAP isn’t yet certain. But Walters said conversations already have started with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal aid program, about the possibility.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is calling lawmakers into a 10-day special session on taxes later this month to try to fill gaps in next year’s budget. He’s asking lawmakers to pass some expiring temporary taxes that are causing the state to collect $648 million less in general tax dollars.
Without additional money the family services department will officially notify the USDA in September that it intends to shut down Louisiana’s SNAP program. In January, 1,000 staff would be laid off, eight offices closed and aid from the program ended.
“Our whole culture is wrapped around sharing food, and yet we’re talking about not feeding 860,000 people. It’s just so illogical,” Walters said. “The repercussions of this are ugly.”
Louisiana doles out $1.4 billion in federal food stamp aid annually to low-income households, with benefits depending on the number of people in the family and the level of income. For example, a family of four may receive a maximum $640 per month.
No other state has ever shuttered a SNAP program. Walters said her department has few options after years of cuts that slashed its budget from more than $1.2 billion to around $770 million this year. The reduction in next year’s budget would strip 24 percent of the unrestricted, discretionary state general fund money the agency receives.
Walters said she’s protected emergency preparedness work, and described child welfare services as off limits because “to take a cut there means literally children die.” If she hits the child support enforcement program, Walters said, the state could lose $150 million in federal grants that spread across multiple agencies to pay for a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children, substance abuse treatment, drug courts and other services.
“It really was a process of elimination. SNAP was the only program left,” she said.
If Louisiana doesn’t have a food stamp program, that also means the state can’t administer disaster food stamp aid after a hurricane, flood or other calamity.
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Story by Melinda Deslatte