Farm-Bill Conferees Focus on Food-Stamp Fight

Will the federal government really throw millions of hungry people off these benefits?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 18: A girl pays for her mother's groceries using Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) tokens, more commonly known as Food Stamps, at the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013 in New York City. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, 20% of American adults struggled to buy enough food at some point in the last year. The rate of hungry people in America has gone relatively unchanged since 2008, suggesting the economic recovery since the 2008 recession may be disproportionately affecting the wealthy. More than 50 of GrowNYC's Greenmarket's now accept EBT; over $800,000 in sales were complete with EBT payment at the Greenmarket's in 2012. GrowNYC is also currently offering a program known as Health Bucks: for ever $5 spent using EBT at a Greenmarket, GrowNYC provides an additional $2, which can be spent specifically on fresh fruits and vegetables.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Add to Briefcase
Jerry Hagstrom
Nov. 17, 2013, 7 a.m.

As farm-bill con­fer­ees try to fin­ish their work be­fore the end of the cal­en­dar year, they face one over­whelm­ing ques­tion: Will the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment really throw mil­lions of people off food stamps?

The is­sue is real and dif­fers from the re­cent ex­pir­a­tion of the boost in be­ne­fits from the Re­cov­ery Act. A fam­ily of four re­ceiv­ing more than $600 per month in food stamps — form­ally known as the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram — lost $36 in pur­chas­ing power. That re­duc­tion in be­ne­fits is a tiny is­sue com­pared with the House’s farm-bill pro­pos­als that would save $39 bil­lion over 10 years by caus­ing close to 4 mil­lion in­di­vidu­als to lose be­ne­fits en­tirely and 210,000 chil­dren to lose free school meals.

The Sen­ate’s farm bill would also make eli­gib­il­ity more dif­fi­cult, but on a much smal­ler scale. It would deny be­ne­fits to lot­tery win­ners, crack down on be­ne­fits traf­fick­ing, and tight­en up on eli­gib­il­ity for col­lege stu­dents. It would also force states to pay at least $10 per month in be­ne­fits un­der the Low In­come Home En­ergy As­sist­ance Pro­gram for SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies to be able to get high­er food-stamp be­ne­fits. All of these cuts and changes would the­or­et­ic­ally save $4 bil­lion a year, al­though House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn., has said the states that have been pay­ing as little as $1 per month in LI­HEAP be­ne­fits are likely to in­crease those to $10 so that people can still get high­er SNAP be­ne­fits.

The House achieves its big cut by elim­in­at­ing cat­egor­ic­al eli­gib­il­ity — a leg­al pro­vi­sion un­der which the states can make it easi­er for people who get oth­er wel­fare be­ne­fits to qual­i­fy for food stamps — and by elim­in­at­ing states’ abil­ity to provide food-stamp be­ne­fits to child­less un­em­ployed adults for more than three months if they don’t get a job.

The Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures last week en­dorsed the Sen­ate ver­sion of the nu­tri­tion title and op­poses the House one be­cause it would in­crease state ad­min­is­trat­ive costs and pro­gram com­plex­ity. In the past, that view would have ap­pealed to con­ser­vat­ives be­cause they are against in­creas­ing the costs of run­ning state gov­ern­ments, but they seem to have shif­ted their con­cern to over­all spend­ing.

In en­dors­ing the Sen­ate ver­sion, NC­SL stands apart from oth­er groups with an in­terest in food as­sist­ance. The big prob­lem with fig­ur­ing out what will hap­pen to the nu­tri­tion title is that neither lib­er­al nor con­ser­vat­ive groups seem to want to get in­volved in the gritty de­tails. An­ti­hun­ger groups such as the Food Re­search and Ac­tion Cen­ter op­pose any cuts, while the con­ser­vat­ive Cato In­sti­tute wants nu­tri­tion pro­grams turned over to the state gov­ern­ments. Food com­pan­ies and re­tail­ers — in­clud­ing Wal-Mart — have so far stayed out of the de­bate. One food-com­pany ex­ec­ut­ive said the in­dustry is wor­ried about ap­pear­ing self-serving, but an ar­gu­ment could be made that they should stand up for their cus­tom­ers.

The House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee did not hold any hear­ings on the nu­tri­tion title this year, a point em­phas­ized re­peatedly by Peterson and Rep. Mar­cia Fudge, D-Ohio, the rank­ing mem­ber on the sub­com­mit­tee in charge of nu­tri­tion. Peterson has said that the states have too much flex­ib­il­ity, which has res­ul­ted in dif­fer­ent stand­ards in dif­fer­ent places, but that fed­er­al tests of what as­sets ap­plic­ants can hold are so strict and out of date that the states ask for waivers from them.

The House pro­vi­sion end­ing the states’ abil­ity to provide food stamps to single, able-bod­ied adults for more than three months if they don’t find jobs is polit­ic­ally pop­u­lar among con­ser­vat­ives. Yet it is one of the cruelest of pro­vi­sions. Men make up 60 per­cent of the single, able-bod­ied group, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies. It in­cludes vet­er­ans of the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan wars, who al­though they may be tech­nic­ally able-bod­ied, can have emo­tion­al prob­lems or simply can’t find jobs in high un­em­ploy­ment areas.

A co­ali­tion of 1,300 an­ti­hun­ger char­it­ies told con­fer­ees last week the House cuts would ex­ceed the total num­ber of meals dis­trib­uted an­nu­ally by Feed­ing Amer­ica, a na­tion­al net­work of food banks.

An­ti­hun­ger groups hope that Pres­id­ent Obama will veto any bill that con­tains a big food-stamp cut. But re­ly­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion is dan­ger­ous. Pres­id­ent Clin­ton agreed re­luct­antly to a big cut to food stamps in the 1996 wel­fare-re­form bill, and Obama and Con­gress twice moved up the ex­pir­a­tion date on the Re­cov­ery Act boost so that the budget au­thor­ity could be used to keep teach­ers on the job and provide money for health­i­er school meals.

Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack said last week that the bill should force the states to be more ac­count­able in their use of the $350 mil­lion to $400 mil­lion in fed­er­al aid they re­ceive an­nu­ally to help SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies get train­ing and land jobs. Vil­sack said he agrees with con­ser­vat­ives that the goal should be get­ting people off food stamps, but that the way to do it is to help them find jobs rather than take them off be­ne­fits first.

Vil­sack said USDA’s tech­nic­al staff is in “con­stant con­tact” with Cap­it­ol Hill. Let’s hope that people who run SNAP ad­vise Con­gress on how to cut it — and that all con­cerned re­mem­ber there is a dif­fer­ence between cut­ting be­ne­fits and cut­ting hungry people off en­tirely.

Con­trib­ut­ing Ed­it­or Jerry Hag­strom is the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of The Hag­strom Re­port, at www.Hag­strom­Re­port.com.

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