In a tidy apartment kitchen Friday afternoon, Stacey Villa pulled a casserole pan of ravioli and marinara sauce out of the oven to cool, hoping it would feed her two daughters for a couple of weekend meals. She would skip lunch as usual, take a nap, send her children to her mother’s house and head to the hospital to work the night shift.

Villa is making it, just barely, as a single mother earning less than $500 a week. But she worries that the government may soon remove a safety net that stands between her family and hunger: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The U.S. House of Representatives this month voted to cut about $40 billion out of the “food stamp” program during the next decade. The bill would immediately cut about 3.8 million of the nation’s 48 million SNAP recipients from the rolls, according to official estimates, and during the decade would cut about 14 million.

The proposed cut, 10 times deeper than the Senate’s proposal, has alarmed anti-hunger advocates in McLennan County, where the poverty rate is about 22 percent and about 43,834 people receive SNAP assistance.

“We are concerned about our clients and the community in general,” said Buddy Edwards, executive director of Caritas, a charity that offers food and other assistance. “The cuts are significant, and there will be an increased need for families to go to food pantries such as Caritas, requiring us to secure more food.”

Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Texas Hunger Initiative based at Baylor University, said more hunger would be the immediate result of the cuts. He said the county receives about $50 million a year in SNAP benefits, and private charity isn’t equipped to make up for the cuts.

“This would be the equivalent of closing every food pantry in McLennan County for eight years,” he said, basing his estimate on national SNAP and food bank figures.

Losing benefits

Although no hard numbers are available for SNAP losses in this county, the Texas Food Bank Network estimates that 171,000 Texans, or 4.25 percent of SNAP users, would lose benefits immediately, with more cuts each year.

In addition, current SNAP users will see a cut in benefits starting in November, because of the expiration of a 2009 stimulus program. A family of four would see an average cut of $39 a month.

Villa isn’t among those SNAP users, but she credits the program for helping her family though a rough patch in 2009. Early that year, soon after moving to Waco, her family ended up at the Compassion Ministries transitional shelter until she could afford an apartment on her own.

“There were times I had to decide whether I was going to get a few groceries or gas,” she said. “It helped me tremendously to be able to feed my children and to make healthier choices. It meant less boxed mac and cheese, hot dogs and canned food. (Before that), if we didn’t have anything else, we’d just eat sandwiches and cereal.”

She said cutting the program would be “devastating” to families that are already struggling in a weak economy.

Villa lost eligibility when she traded up from a paralegal job that paid $9.50 an hour to a medical claims job at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center that paid $12.44 an hour and offered overtime. But now that overtime has been cut, and she would like to reapply if Congress doesn’t close that door to her.

Supporters of the House SNAP bill, including Waco’s congressman, say it ensures food assistance for truly needy families while reducing bloat in the system and sending a message that able-bodied people need to get a job.

“There have been some people who say we’re starving children, taking food out of babies’ mouths,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. “But the numbers don’t support that. What we proposed is a 5 percent cut. The problem with fraud and abuse is more than $40 billion.”

He pointed out that the SNAP program has grown rapidly during the past few years.

The Congressional Budget Office reports that 21 million Americans have been added to the SNAP rolls since 2007, the year the recession began. Enrollment is projected to decrease even without the cuts.

“Most people I talk to do not like the food stamp program,” Flores said. “They believe the way I do, that a paycheck is the best social program.”

The bill, which passed on party lines by a 217-210 margin, would tighten already strict limitations on assistance to able-bodied, childless men. They would have to get a job or be in an employment program before they could qualify.

The bill also would end the policy of “categorical eligibility,” which allows states to qualify applicants based on other assistance they receive, while giving states flexibility to exceed limits on income and assets.

Flores said some states were taking advantage of the system by giving people a minimal amount of state assistance so they could draw down food stamps.

Effect on families

He said he doesn’t think many Texas families would be affected by the bill.

“I wouldn’t expect a big changes,” he said. “One of the things that made voting for this easier is that not many people fall into those categories.”

Rachel Cooper, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, disputes Flores’ interpretation of the bill. She said the majority of SNAP beneficiaries are working families, and families would bear the brunt of the proposed cuts.

“If Mr. Flores doesn’t understand that, I’d be happy to explain that to him,” said Cooper, whose agency advocates for lower-income Texans. “It’s sad to see he cast this vote without realizing that this does matter to families.”

Cooper said categorical eligibility has allowed Texas to adjust income guidelines to take into account the rising cost of living.

Federal guidelines set a ceiling of 130 percent of poverty guidelines, or $30,615 for a family of four.

Since 2001, Texas has allowed residents at up to 165 percent of the poverty guidelines — $38,857 for a family of four — to apply for the program. To qualify, they would have to show that high expenses such as child care and rent qualified them as needy.

Cooper said the new legislation would threaten the eligibility of a single working parent like Villa, whose wages are only slightly above the 130 percent of poverty threshold.

Also working against Villa is her car, for which she is still paying. Villa estimates the car is worth $7,000, which isn’t a problem under current state rules that allow a household to have a car worth up to $15,000 without penalty.

Without categorical eligibility, the car can be worth no more than $4,650 before it starts counting against a $2,000 cap on personal assets.

“That’s where we think the loss of categorical eligibility is really devastating to working poor families,” Cooper said. “We know that in Texas you have to have a working vehicle to feed yourself. It’s forcing people to stay poor if you won’t let them own a car.”

Everett, the Texas Hunger Initiative director, said most critics of the SNAP program fail to realize how important it is in keeping families out of poverty.

“It is the best anti-hunger program we have as a community,” he said.

Everett said SNAP is a “trickle-up” program, with each dollar spent creating $1.80 worth of economic activity in the community.

“I’m not an economist, but I know that we have a very impoverished community. It doesn’t seem to me that our economy is so strong in Waco that we can afford to be taking these resources out of our community. . . . It’s not just taking food out of the mouths of hungry people, but we’re losing jobs in our economy.”

Everett argued that just telling SNAP beneficiaries to get a job misses the reality that many SNAP householders are working full time but unable to make ends meet.

“I haven’t met anyone who wouldn’t prefer to see people make better wages to be able purchase their own food,” he said. “What we’re seeing is, though the economic rebound has largely happened for the top 10 percent, it hasn’t happened for the low wage earners yet. People still aren’t hiring at same rate as before the recession.”

Villa said she made $15 an hour at her old job in Illinois. When she moved to Texas, she thought she could save money because of the lower cost of living here, but she found low wages more than offset those savings.

Though she had an associate’s degree from a business school, she said she couldn’t make enough to feed and house her family and pay credit card and car debt. The father of her children wasn’t paying child support, she said. She ended up living at Compassion Ministries and signing up for SNAP. She said it was a hard decision.

“It’s kind of embarrassing having to pull out that card,” she said. “I know it was my choice to have children. I kind of felt like a failure in a way. It’s very humbling to go through it. It makes it harder being judged by other people. But if it weren’t for that, a lot of families wouldn’t have anything to eat.”

Villa said she has taken on extra part-time jobs, such as delivering papers and house cleaning. Thanks to classes she took at Caritas, she is able to write and follow a budget. Still, she said her children notice that the family is under financial pressure.

“They’re really sweet,” she said. “They don’t ask for much. They offer their piggy banks at times.”

About half of SNAP families with children have working adults, and 80 percent of SNAP recipients have worked in the prior year, according to federal data compiled by the Center for Budget Policy Priorities.

Mother of 4

Gloria Howard, 29, is among those who aren’t currently employed, though she has had a variety of minimum-wage, fast-food jobs in the recent past. Howard is a mother of four, ranging from 19 months to 13 years. She gets child support for none of them, and the father of the toddler has died.

On a recent Thursday night, her small home in North Waco was full of those children and her nephews and nieces, who sprawled out around the kitchen table and a blanket on the floor, eating smothered shoulder steak, boiled potatoes and pinto beans.

The 13-year-old, a running back on the Tennyson Middle School football team, devoured the meat and wanted more. Then the children lined up for dessert: refrigerated peaches scooped from a can.

Howard said she wants to work, but she doesn’t have the education to earn a wage that would support her family.

“I would love to be off food stamps,” she said. “I have lived on them all my life. I want to stand up and be on my own. I don’t want to have to depend on the government for everything. I already beat myself up, saying, ‘If I only had a GED or a college degree.’ ”

She said she is trying to earn a GED, and she hopes to go to Texas State Technical College within the next few years.

But she said cutting SNAP wouldn’t help her make the leap out of poverty.

“That’s what helps me take care of my children,” she said. “If they cut that, I think I’m going to break down and cry. We have God, and he does so much, but earthbound, if they cut food stamps, I don’t have many choices.”

Everett, the Texas Hunger Initiative official, said the fight for preserving SNAP benefits isn’t over, and he hopes to reach out to Flores on the issue.

“I would hope as this gets kicked back to the House, his office and our office can work together to make an apolitical, informed decision, recognizing that he is in a difficult situation,” Everett said. “He seems to be a reasonable man, and I know people in his office who are reasonable. Our job will be just to put out the facts.”

Flores said some of his constituents would like to see SNAP disappear, but he thinks it’s necessary.

“It is a safety-net program, and I think we need to keep it,” he said.

But he said SNAP should be bundled with other social assistance programs into an omnibus bill so their cost would be more visible.

Flores said economic development is ultimately the solution to Waco’s poverty problem, and he thinks the city is headed in the right direction.

“We’re fortunate in Texas to have a vibrant state economically,” he said. “Waco is doing an exceptional job attracting new businesses to the area. That’s one of the solutions to handle this.”