A Mississippi man is petitioning the federal government to allow recipients of food stamps to use their benefits to purchase pet food.
Edward B. Johnston Jr., 59, launched a Care2.com petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the program, to extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to pets.
Under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, households cannot use SNAP benefits to buy nonfood items such as pet food, as well as soaps, paper products, medicines and vitamins, household supplies, tobacco and alcoholic beverages.
In his petition, Johnston writes that low-income pet owners should not have to chose between feeding their families and keeping their pets.
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"I am one of those Americans," he writes. "I have only been on SNAP benefits for a few months, but I have been unable to feed my little dog due to government regulations.”
Johnston argues that dogs become a part of the family, and pet owners shouldn’t have to give up their beloved four-legged family member if they hit a "financial rough patch." He notes that a person or family’s financial status can change overnight.
"Pets are also important for emotional support. Being poor is hard enough without being expected to give up your companion. For most people, pets are considered family, not property,” Johnston added.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Human Society of the United States, supports the petition and urged Congress to revise the definition of "food" in SNAP to include pet food.
"Even as these families struggle to get by, they embrace their responsibilities as caregivers to their pets," Pacelle wrote in a blog post published on the group's website. "Scarce financial resources do not mean any scarcity of love in their hearts for their animals. People already making tough decisions should not have to deal with even more worry and stress because the government says they cannot feed their animals with the federal assistance they receive."
To qualify for SNAP, a household’s income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, this equates to $31,980 a year, or $2,665 a month. On average, SNAP households now receive about $253 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average SNAP benefit per person is about $125 a month, the agency reported.
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Many beneficiaries of the SNAP program work low-income or part-time jobs and struggle to make enough money to feed themselves or their families, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In 2017, more than 42 million people received SNAP benefits, totaling over $67 billion, the USDA reported.
But the program is a divisive political issue. While most Democrats see SNAP as a safety net for vulnerable members of society, many conservatives consider it entitlement spending that needs to be curbed.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal last year called for cutting more than $192 billion from SNAP over a decade. The administration has signaled it wants to reign in social welfare programs in 2018 as a way to reduce the deficit and has found eager support in Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP members of the House Freedom Caucus, Reuters reported.
Parcelle contends that using a limited federal allowance to feed his beloved pet "is not an abuse of the system, nor an affront to taxpayers. It is a matter of survival for animals, and it allows people to have the comfort of knowing that their best friend is not going to have to go hungry."
He also notes that when low-income families are forced to surrender their pets to shelters, local governments and nonprofits often bear the cost of caring for the newly homeless animal.
Given the current landscape, it is unlikely that Congress will vote to lift restrictions for pet food.
Still, Johnson appears to have the support of tens of thousands. By early Tuesday morning, the petition had garnered over 99,000 signatures, surpassing its two previous two goals of 80,000 and 90,000 signatures. It was not immediately clear when Johnston launched the petition.
The USDA did not immediately return a request for comment.
Johnston isn't the first to tackle the issue of poverty and pets. In 2013, a New York-based nonprofit launched a "Pet Food Stamps" program that provided pet food assistance for owners who are enrolled in SNAP.
The organization shut down a year later, citing an overwhelming number of applications and the inability to raise enough money to follow through on what had been promised, WISC-TV reported. "The program was not sustainable," Pet Food Stamps wrote on its now-defunct website.