Economy/Economic Policy

U.S. Lawmakers Sharpen Axe on Food Stamp Program

Monday, December 9, 2013

U.S. lawmakers will be trying to reconcile bills this week that will reduce benefits in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps.

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Credit: Paul Sableman/pasa47 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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(WOMENSNEWS)--A new attack on the food security of Americans is underway.

A congressional conference committee will resume negotiations Dec. 10 to reconcile the bills that will reduce benefits in the nation's largest feeding program for low-income people. Last summer, the Republican-controlled House voted to slash nearly $40 billion and the Democratic Senate voted to cut one-10th that amount from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program over the next decade.

Known as SNAP, and previously called food stamps, the program serves 48 million Americans--many of them elderly women and single mothers of young children--and is facing cuts.

About 3.8 million SNAP recipients would be dropped from the rolls in 2014 under House requirements, estimates the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Another 850,000 recipients would lose an average of $90 per month. An estimated 210,000 children would be ineligible for free school meals.

"These cuts will take a terrible toll because they come on the heels of the expiration of the temporary boost to benefits that were included in the 2009 Recovery Act, which eased hardship during the recession," said Erika Kelly, chief advocacy officer for Meals on Wheels Association of America, based in Alexandria, Va. The organization of 5,000 local feeding programs provides more than 1 million meals to seniors in their homes and senior centers each day. Nineteen percent of the recipients of the meals they deliver are on the SNAP program.

The stimulus increased the average monthly SNAP benefit per person to $133.85, less than $1.50 per meal. As of Nov. 1, an individual lost about $11 a month, a family of three, $29 a month.

"These cuts might not seem like much, but to an 80-year-old woman living alone and struggling to pay her rent and to afford expensive medications, they can be devastating," said Kelly in a phone interview. "A single mother and her two kids will be able to afford 16 fewer meals each month in 2014."

Political Union Ended

The food aid bill, part of the farm bill since 1973, is being considered on its own this year.

In July, House Republicans removed food aid policy from the farm bill so now there are two bills, one for food aid and the other for farm subsidies. That ended the decades' old political union of cities--which are concerned about feeding programs--and rural areas, which are dependent on farm subsidies. Separate bills mean that those favoring farm supports, largely Republicans, can torpedo the food aid bill in the House without worrying about retaliation by the Democrats.

Some of those who will be affected by the cuts are recipients of welfare, which is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a program that mainly serves single women with children to support.

The House bill, in addition to allowing states to test applicants for drugs and implement new work requirements for many SNAP recipients, would eliminate government waivers that have enabled states to allow people who receive other benefits to automatically qualify for food stamps.

In Ohio, that will pose a hardship for the state's poorest families and agencies that serve them, predicted Wendy Patton, senior project director for Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit state policy research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

"Ohio struggled to meet the federal requirements for TANF during the recession and faced more than $130 million in penalties for failing to do so," she said in a phone interview. "Dwindling resources and looming penalties drove some localities to divert or remove adults from the Ohio Works First, a cash assistance program, during the past two years. As a result, the program serves 61,000 fewer children than in 2011."

Food banks will be hard pressed to fill the gap opened by cuts in SNAP, predicted Feeding America. The nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, based in Chicago, estimates that the Nov. 1 SNAP reduction will result in a loss of nearly 2 billion meals for poor families in 2014.

"Most SNAP recipients run out of food stamps by the third week of the month and look to food banks to keep them going," said Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which provides food to 600 partners in metropolitan Atlanta and Northern Georgia counties. "We are already at our limit because the Great Recession has thrown millions more people into poverty, including the working poor."

Pushing for Cuts

The Senate bill would achieve its $4 billion in savings by tweaking certain subsidies on utility bills available to SNAP recipients. Nearly one-third of families receiving state assistance in paying heating bills said they went hungry during the past five years because their energy costs were so high, found a survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

House conservatives led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican of Virginia, are pushing for steeper cuts. Cantor says the program is bloated by undeserving recipients. He cited an unemployed California surfer who had reportedly used food stamps to dine on lobster.

Mary O'Shea, director of advocacy and public education of the Cleveland Food Bank, which distributed more than 35.4 million pounds of food and other essentials to 685 feeding programs in Northeast Ohio in 2012, disagrees with Cantor's assessment.

"SNAP targets the most vulnerable Americans," she said in a phone interview. "Eighty- three percent of SNAP households had gross incomes at or below 100 percent of the poverty level in 2013 [$11,190 for an individual and $19,530 for a family of three]. Seventy-six percent of SNAP households include a senior, a child or a disabled person."

Cantor has complained that the food stamp program costs too much, has grown too quickly and encourages dependency on the government.

"The food stamp program is part of the dignity of a job," Cantor told Fox News in July.

"We are going back to 1996 when a Republican Congress worked with President Bill Clinton to overhaul the welfare programs in this country by instituting a work-fare requirement."

Although federal law includes a work requirement for food stamp recipients, more than 40 states received waivers of that requirement because of high unemployment during the recent recession. The number of unemployed people increased 94 percent from 2007 to 2011. SNAP rolls climbed 70 percent during the same period. Currently, half of SNAP recipients are employed.

Job Requirements

The House bill would save an estimated $19 billion by requiring able-bodied, childless adults who want to receive full SNAP benefits to either work at least 20 hours a week or enter a federally-approved job training program. Those who failed to do so would only be eligible for three months of SNAP benefits every three years.

Another provision of the House bill affects a working-age parent of a child over age 1 who has child care available or a child over age 6 who is enrolled in school. Such a parent would be required to meet similar work and job training requirements of the Clinton Administration's TANF program to get food aid.

Patton, of Policy Matters Ohio, hopes that the economic fallout of the expiration of the stimulus on the states will convince the congressional conference committee to avoid further cuts to SNAP.

"Food stamps funnel money into grocery stores and other local businesses because recipients spend their limited funds on life's necessities," she said. "Every dollar in SNAP funding generates up to $1.70 in economic activity for these businesses."

California will face the largest reduction of $457 million in 2014, reports the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. But the economies of smaller states such as New Mexico, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and South Carolina will be affected too because about 20 percent of their residents receive food stamps.

Cantor and other Republicans contend that decreasing SNAP costs, which represent about 2 percent of the federal budget, is necessary to keep federal spending in check and shrink the national deficit. A decade ago, federal costs for SNAP topped $20 billion compared to $78.4 billion in 2013.

The Congressional Budget Office projects federal spending on food stamps to decrease over the next five years as the economy improves and more recipients find jobs.

"The SNAP program is an important investment in America's future," said Bolling of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families who had access to food stamps improved their babies' birth weights. These children had better health and higher educational attainment. Cutting a program with such positive benefits doesn't make sense."

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