Marylanders relying on food stamps are worried about planned cuts to the program. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

Tracey Coleman understands that many people are skeptical about the federal food stamp program, and she agrees that some reform may be needed.

But the 43-year-old Essex woman also knows food stamps have kept her family fed since her husband was laid off from the Sparrows Point steel plant last year. And she doesn't believe the broad cuts Congress is considering are the right thing to do.

"It's made a difference in our life," said Coleman, who is raising three children, including a daughter who is autistic. "The good outweighs the bad."

Tens of thousands of Marylanders could be cut off from food stamps next year as Congress races against a deadline to renew the $80 billion program that helps to feed one in seven Americans. Lawmakers are poised to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are called; the only question is by how much.

Proposed reductions have become the central issue in continuing negotiations over a $500 billion farm bill. House lawmakers narrowly approved a $39 billion cut in September; the Senate backed a $4 billion reduction.

Either plan, advocates say, will have consequences for those who struggle to feed their families.

"If those cuts happen, food banks across the country would have to, overnight, double their food distribution just to remain even," said Maryland Food Bank president Deborah Flateman.

Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps nationwide — up 18 percent since 2010 because of the recession. About 796,000 Marylanders are enrolled, with 219,000 in Baltimore City and an additional 175,000 in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, according to the state Department of Human Resources.

The House proposal would knock 3.8 million people off the program next year nationwide. State officials could not estimate how many Marylanders would be affected, but said one provision alone — to impose stricter eligibility requirements — would cut off 30,000 households.

A separate provision to eliminate the state's ability to waive work requirements for some recipients could take 77,000 Marylanders off the program, according the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

"It's going to be felt," said Richard Robinson, a 55-year-old Gulf War veteran who previously struggled with homelessness and addiction and relies on food stamps as he studies at Anne Arundel Community College.

Robinson lives in transitional housing in Glen Burnie and receives $189 a month in food stamps. It's unclear if attending classes would satisfy a proposal that would require more recipients to be enrolled in job training programs.

Critics of the program, including the conservative Heritage Foundation, say food stamp spending should start falling to pre-recession levels as the economy improves. The nation's unemployment has dropped to 7.3 percent from its peak of 10 percent in late 2009.

"The purpose of welfare shouldn't just be to pour more money at the system but to promote self-sufficiency," said Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at Heritage. "It needs to be reformed."

Others point to high-profile cases of fraud in the program, including a federal indictment in September against several Baltimore grocers. Trafficking of food stamps rose to $858 million — or 1.3 percent of total spending — in a 2009-2011 study from $330 million three years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who last year created a program that allows beneficiaries to spend food stamps at farmers' markets, said fraud represents a small fraction of overall benefits. The House proposal, she said, would have an impact far beyond those cases.

"People rob banks, but we don't close the banks," she said.

Coleman said she's witnessed people trading food stamps for cash at the grocery store — which is illegal — but said the program has helped her family get back on its feet.

Her husband, who worked at the mill for 17 years, is training for a job as a heating and air-conditioning technician. She works part time at Target. As their income increases, benefits decrease. Coleman is concerned the proposed changes could knock her family off the program entirely.

"When your income has dramatically dropped, you start spacing the money out to try to pay the bills," she said. "We're starting the climb to get to where we need to be."

Proposed food stamp reductions in the farm bill come on top of an $11 billion cut that occurred when a recession-related boost in spending ended Nov. 1. For an individual, that reduction amounted to about $11 less in food stamps per month.

The Colemans were receiving $523 a month in food stamps. That was reduced by $40 this month.

Lawmakers have about a dozen work days left to broker a compromise on the farm bill by the end of the year. Without a deal, U.S. farm policy would be dictated by a law dating to the Truman administration that would double the price of milk in January.

A 41-lawmaker conference committee is working to reconcile the differences in the bills. If they can't find a compromise, Congress could decide to pass a short-term extension — though that option is opposed by many farmers.

A House bill died on the floor after conservative Republicans felt a proposed $20 billion cut to food stamps was not enough and Democrats felt it was too severe. Republicans then brought a bill to the floor with the $40 billion cut, and passed it over Democratic opposition.

"Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for able-bodied people who refuse to seek job training or employment," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who voted for both versions of the bill. "We must ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely."

Democrats have largely held together in opposition to both versions.

"Most people in my district struggling to put food on the table are working parents, seniors and veterans," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who voted against both versions. "Government spending must be reduced, but not on the backs of families."

John Gaither Jr. gets $25 a month in food stamps, which he said covers little more than milk for him and his 17-year-old son.

"For them to cut us back when the price of food is going up, it shouldn't even be a discussion," said Gaither a 52-year-old Mount Clare resident. "We should spend money on Americans. We should take care of our own."

Gaither, a former steelworker, receives disability payments for neuropathy and arthritis. He said he is frustrated by politicians who want to put the interest of "corporate welfare queens" ahead of struggling families.

"You are going to make poverty worse," he said. "It's insane."

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