House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Is That Bad

The draft Farm Bill the House Agriculture Committee co-chairs released last week makes the Senate’s $4.5 billion cut in the food stamp program look like a nick.

The bill would reduce food stamp spending by about $16 billion over the same 10-year period — more than 45% of the estimated total saved.

By far and away the biggest bite — about $11.5 billion — comes from a “common-sense” reform that was among the crippling amendments the Senate defeated.

This so-called reform does away with what’s called broad-based categorical eligibility — an option that 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted to extend food stamp benefits to more people in need.

With this option, households automatically qualify for food stamps if they receive a benefit funded by the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — so long as their gross income is at or below a threshold the state chooses.

Federal law says it can’t be higher than 200% of the federal poverty line — currently $3,182 a month for a family of three. Most states, however, set the threshold lower.

The option doesn’t only allow households with somewhat higher incomes to participate. It also exempts them from the program’s regular assets test — if states decide to go this route. Not all states with categorical eligibility have.

The assets test is a separate part of the standard eligibility assessment. It disqualifies households if they have more than $2,000 in liquid assets, e.g., money in the bank — or $3,250 if a member is elderly or disabled.

The test also screens out households that have a car worth more than $4,650, even if they owe some port of it to the finance company. An exception if the car is used to earn income, e.g., as a taxi, but not if the breadwinner needs it to get to work.

The co-chairs draft wouldn’t just wipe out broad-based categorical eligibility. It would also nullify a modified form some states have adopted.

Households would automatically qualify for food stamps only if they receive cash assistance from TANF, the federal Supplemental Social Security Income program or a state’s general assistance program.

These are, by and large, households with incomes way below the poverty line.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observes, households with gross incomes above the regular 130% food stamp cut-off often have disposable incomes, i.e., money they can spend on things like food, that fall below the line after deductions for costs they must pay in order to work — notably child care.

No matter. The co-chairs see a “loophole” to close — or maybe just a way to get to their savings target while still preserving generous farm subsidies.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The Committee earlier offered the same savings as part of its contribution to the House budget reconciliation bill, i.e., the Republican majority’s alternative to the across-the-board cuts that are still on the horizon.

What’s noteworthy, however, is that Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) reportedly wanted to replace categorical eligibility with a higher income cut-off and asset maximum than the current law establishes, plus an exclusion for one car.

But his Tea Party-type colleagues would have none of it. So the Committee will instead vote on — and almost surely pass — a measure that excludes even more people from the food stamp program than the Lucas proposal would have.

We don’t yet have a fix on how many people would lose their benefits.

When the Committee proposed the same provision for the budget reconciliation bill, the Congressional Budget Office estimated an average of 1.8 million a year.

The Office of Management and Budget put the figure at more than 3 million in 2013 — about two-thirds of them in households where at least one adult works.

We have a window of opportunity to save these folks from having to choose between eating and earning — or in  the case of the elderly, between eating and spending down money they’ve put aside for expected costs like medical co-pays.

Some are saying the House may not vote on a Farm Bill at all — at least not before the current law expires at the end of September.

If it does, the Senate’s Democratic majority will almost surely balk at the food stamp cut, as well as some other provisionse.g., its extraneous attack on environmental regulations.

So like as not, we’ll have one of those kick-the-can-down-the-road extensions.

But that may be a short-term reprieve for low-income families who’ve had the prudence to save for a rainy day — or a car that’s not a 10 year old clunker.

6 Responses to House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Is That Bad

  1. Kathryn, thanks for your compelling coverage of this issue. Help stop these Draconian measures that will Cut SNAP/Food Stamps benefits — tomorrow, Tuesday, July 10, 2012, 9:30 a.m on the Hill — check out http://bit.ly/LCz2L1 for info.

  2. Thanks for helping me stay educated on the federal politics of food assistance, Kathryn.

    So, let’s see, the House Agriculture Committee is asking how many more poor families should starve just because they have a car to get to work. How many seniors have to deplete their retirement accounts just to put food on the table?

    As I was reading this post I thought of a 90+ year-old veteran I know who loves bulk sales of Ramen and spices. Ramen is “great” for him because he can just double the water content to make more soup, and the spices really help is less-than-nourishing meals stay tasty.

    Rather than asking how many more should starve, we should be asking how many people can we kept fed during these tough economic times.

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    You got it right, Michael. And the policy question you’ve framed is the right one, of course.

    There’s another angle that I haven’t addressed — and should. House Republicans are making a big deal about the huge size of the food stamp program. But spending on the program is expected to decline as the economy improves. No new restrictions needed to make this happen.

    The story you’re telling about the elderly veteran is very distressing. Do you know if he gets food stamps?

  4. Robert is certainly eligible for food stamps, but I can’t say for certain if he receives them.

    And, great point about the growth in food assistance spending. Of course an antipoverty program is going to grow during a recession. That’s a success!

  5. [...] who doubts this need only look at what’s in store for food stamps. Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  6. [...] households — 1.3 million if the House version prevails. The House bill would also mean no more food stamps at all for as many as 3 million [...]

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