Bill Aims to Stop Child Summer Hunger

June 9, 2014

As my last post said, the summer meal programs subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reach only a fraction of children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year.

So a far larger number are at risk of hunger — and their parents more so because they go without to keep their children fed, as they themselves say and USDA food insecurity data confirm.

No one, I hope, would argue that we ought to do away with the summer meal programs, though you never can tell, these days. But both their track record and inherent limits suggest they’re not the sole answer to summertime hunger.

Senator Patty Murray has introduced a bill — the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act — that could very well do what its title says. At the same time, it would reduce, if not altogether avert what’s probably more common parent hunger.

Basically, the bill would provide families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals with the cost equivalent of free breakfasts and lunches during the summer break.

Their summer food budget supplement would be loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer card like the EBT card now used for SNAP (food stamp) benefits — and in some states, also WIC benefits.

This would initially give families an extra $150 per school-age child for the summer. As with SNAP, they could use their cards only to purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages.

Stipends would be adjusted to keep pace with USDA’s school meal reimbursement rates, which are subject to annual adjustments based on a Consumer Price Index for “food away from home,” i.e., the costs of foods and beverages purchased in restaurants, carry-outs and the like.

Murray’s proposal builds on a USDA-funded project to explore alternative ways of bridging gaps in regular school meal programs.

You may have read about it recently because Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee caused quite a flap in certain left-leaning quarters when they restricted the next phase to rural counties in the Appalachian region.

Senator Murray is apparently satisfied with the results of the initial pilot — as well she might be. The evaluation team found, among many things, that the summer EBT cards, providing basically the same benefit her bill would, reduced very low food security among children by 33%.

Translated from USDA-speak, this means that nearly a third of the children who’d otherwise at least sometimes literally not have had enough to eat didn’t go hungry. And they ate more good things like fruits and veggies too.

A veritable host of major organizations have endorsed the Murray bill. Doubtful, however, that it will go anywhere at this point — not because it would add to the deficit (heaven forefend), but in part because of the way Murray would pay for it.

Specifically, her bill would offset the estimated $42 billion 10-year cost by closing a corporate tax loophole that enables multinationals to deduct interest they pay on debt they take on to finance offshore operations before they report any related income on their U.S. tax returns — assuming they ever do.

One can hardly expect multinationals to hold their fire — or “business-friendly” members of Congress either.

Beyond this, as Rob Hotakainen at McClatchyDC notes, some members of Congress don’t much care for the subsidized school meal programs the Murray bill would complement.

Recall Congressman Paul Ryan’s embarrassingly untrue story of the child who longed for a brown-bag lunch lovingly prepared by his mom.

And, less widely reported, the “evidence” his War on Poverty report cited for impacts of the school lunch program — only possible contributions to child obesity.

Well, the Child Nutrition Act is due for renewal next year. This will give Congress a chance to review and perhaps revise the Summer Food Service Program, as well as eight other programs that aim to ensure that children are healthy and hunger-free, as the title of the current law says.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like the Murray bill folded into larger proposals for strengthening the CNA programs.

It would be a good addition to — not substitute for — measures to strengthen the summer meal programs, which got short shrift last time round, as the Food Research and Action Center has noted.

But whether Congress will be inclined to expand the CNA is, at best, an open question.

 

 


Summer Brings Hunger, Despite Free Meal Programs for Children

June 5, 2014

“I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating, says Jean C., one of the Witnesses to Hunger. She tells her kids she’ll eat later, but the oldest has caught on.

Summer is always an especially difficult time for low-income parents with school-age children.

During most of the school year, their kids get free or reduced-price lunches. A growing number also get no-cost or low-cost breakfasts. They may get an after-school snack — or even supper — if they stay to participate in an “educational or enrichment” activity, e.g. tutoring, a photography class.

But summer rolls round. Now parents have to stretch their budgets to serve three squares a day, every day — and like as not, something in between.

Not surprisingly, Census surveys have found higher rates of food insecurity among families with school-age children during summer months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers two summer meal programs designed to address this problem — one only for schools that provide subsidized lunches during the school year and one for nonprofits and government agencies generally.

With some exceptions, subsidies are available only to programs in areas where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — or (extra paperwork here) to those that can show that half the children they serve do.

But meals are free to all participating children. And USDA’s more inclusive program — the Summer Food Service Program — reimburses at somewhat higher rates than for free school breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

The summer meal programs are doing better than in recent years, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s just-released status report. But better isn’t all that great.

Nationwide, the programs served more than 2.9 million children during July 2013 — 15.1% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.

This is surely better than July 2012, when they served 14.3%. The higher rate, however, reflects not only an increase in the number of children served, but a smaller decrease in the number who’d received free or reduced-price lunches.

And it’s still lower than rates before 2010, when a downward trend had already set in. By way of comparison, the rate was 20.8% in 2002.

FRAC cites recession-related budget cuts to programs that commonly serve subsidized summer meals — both summer school and a variety of others, e.g., arts and crafts classes at public recreation centers, daytime soccer camps.

Even so, only about one in five children who might have gone hungry — or more likely, caused their parents to — benefited from a summer meal program more than five years before the Great Recession set in.

This suggests other limits. So do FRAC’s more recent participation rate breakouts, which consistently show wide variations among states — in the latest case, ranging from 30.4% in New Mexico to 4.5% in Oklahoma.

First off, the SFSP hinges on sponsors to launch and operate programs — and so on interest, organizational capacities and resources the subsidies don’t provide. And so-called area eligibility, i.e., the 50% rule I mentioned above, tends to limit where they can locate their programs.

Summer meals are said to help draw children into worthwhile activities. But I’ve been told the opposite is also true.

In other words, sponsors generally need to offer activities with some appeal because the prospects of something free to eat aren’t a sufficient magnet. Or perhaps they might be, but carry a stigma the activities counteract.

Sponsors and other community organizations need to let families know what the programs offer and where — seemingly obvious, but only 40% of low-income families recently surveyed knew where free summer meal sites were located.

Transportation to program sites is a problem, especially in rural areas. Elsewhere also, since 40% of the food-insecure parents surveyed — not nearly all of them rural — cited lack of transportation as a reason their children didn’t participate in a summer meal program.

There’s a whole other kind of limit. FRAC tells us that July is generally the peak month for summer meal programs. In other words, many don’t operate from the time schools close to the time they open again.

So presumably parents of many of those more than 2.9 million children had to come up with the three squares a day during some good part of the summer vacation.

All of which is to say that USDA’s summer meal programs, fine as they are, may not be the solution to hunger for parents like Jean — and in worse cases, their children.

They could get help from a bill recently introduced in Congress — of which more in my next post.


Congress Members Demand Equal Rights for White Potatoes

May 19, 2014

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a final rule for what must and may be in the WIC food packages that state agencies establish for their supplemental nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.

This is altogether good news for the more than 8.6 million moms and kids the program serves — and for everyone who cares about children’s health.

Research indicates that the nutrition aid, health screenings and related referrals that WIC provides help ensure that babies don’t come into the world with high mortality risks, e.g., premature, weighing dangerously little.

And a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that improvements in the WIC food packages may help explain the marked drop in obesity among young children. Now USDA has set the stage for more.

Mothers will have a wider range of dairy and whole grain choices and an additional $2.00 a month to buy fruits and vegetables for their kids. They’ll be able to buy them for older infants, instead of baby food versions.

What they won’t be able to do is use their coupons to buy white potatoes — not a new exclusion. But the potato industry is outraged. “We can’t have the federal government perpetuating … negative stereotypes,” says the head of the National Potato Council.

Members of Congress have leaped to the defense of the allegedly maligned — but oft eaten — white potato.

Last year, four Senators tried to get the white potato into WIC packages by amending the then-evolving Farm Bill.

Failing that, Idaho Senator Mike Simpson stuck a provision into this year’s budget bill that requires the Secretary of Agriculture to order all state agencies to put the white potato into their WIC packages — or explain why he wouldn’t.

The Secretary instead initiated a new IOM review of the WIC food packages. Not good enough. Twenty Senators recently wrote him to “urge … immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes.”

Echoing talking points from the NPC, they allege that IOM used outdated dietary guidelines and ignored the fiber and other nutrients that make white potatoes such a healthful thing to eat.

No one, of course, is claiming that white potatoes lack any nutritional value. The issue is rather whether mothers and young children should eat more of them than they already do. The IOM concluded that they ate plenty.

Our bipartisan potato defenders — many of them recipients of NPC campaign contributions — now seem poised to take matters into their own hands.

David Rogers at Politico reports that lead Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee plan to put a white potato mandate into the USDA appropriations bill. He (reasonably) expects support from enough Democrats to pass it.

We’ll probably see a similar — perhaps also bipartisan — maneuver in the House.

This isn’t just another instance of a well-funded special interest getting its way. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, Congress has never required WIC to include — or exclude — any particular food.

Not that members haven’t tried. Back in the late 1990s, for example, both Senators from Kellogg’s home state pushed for the mandatory inclusion of the company’s Raisin Bran, which exceeded the WIC sugar limit.

So you see what this white potato campaign could lead to. The president of the Children’s Health Fund asks, only half-jokingly, “Will Big Twinkie soon claim underrpresentation in toddlers’ diets too?”

It’s not only WIC — and the young children whose health it supports — that are endangered by such meddling.

In 2011, Congress blocked a change in the nutrition standards for school lunches that would have kept schools from counting pizza as a vegetable based on the tiny bit of tomato paste used to make the sauce. It also deferred a phased-in reduction of sodium in the meals schools served.

And — wouldn’t you know? — it kept USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables, e.g., white potatoes.

Now House Republicans are reportedly considering again using the agriculture appropriations bill to block rules implementing other improvements in school meal programs that Congress authorized when it renewed the Child Nutrition Act.

And again apparently some bipartisanship. Seems that our concerned policymakers would prefer to let schools continue serving white rice, white bread and other foods made wholly with bleached flour, rather than more healthful whole-grain alternatives.

They object to new standards for “competitive foods,” i.e. those sold on school grounds in vending machines, snack bars and the like.

Heaven forfend students shouldn’t be able to make a lunch of chips and a candy bar, washed down with a soda — and schools to make money on them, as some administrators say they have.

At least some of the policymakers are responding to administrators’ complaints — not only the revenue losses, but more food waste because kids don’t take to the whole-grain pasta and/or the fruits and veggies. Some also fret about the higher costs of serving healthier meals.

But studies suggest that kids will adjust to the healthier meals over time. And if USDA’s reimbursement rates aren’t high enough, Congress can increase them.

This is an appropriate role for our elected officials. Overriding science-based rules that will improve child nutrition isn’t.

 

 

 


How States Can Ease the Budget Crunch as Poor Families’ Incomes Rise

May 1, 2014

My last post summarized some policy changes Children’s HealthWatch advocates to avert losses of SNAP (food stamp) benefits before families are in good enough financial shape to make up the difference.

These are all changes Congress would have to authorize. Lots of luck there.

But as with the minimum wage, states can act when Congress won’t. CHW has some recommendations for them — and might have had another if it had finished its report after Congress passed the new Farm Bill.

Happily, several of CHW’s recommendations will be irrelevant to most states because their policies already make SNAP benefits available to households that aren’t quite so poor as the standard federal rules require.

Unhappily, states that haven’t probably won’t — at least so long as right-wingers control the policymaking apparatus. Witness how some are foregoing waivers that would preserve benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Here nevertheless are CHW’s policy solutions for states.

One is broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP — a policy already in place in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

With this option, states can raise the gross income cut-off to 200% of the federal poverty line, thus opening the door to more families whose deductions, e.g., housing, childcare costs, would bring their net income below the FPL. Nothing states can do about the net income cut-off.

States can also lift or altogether eliminate the standard $2,000 limit on “countable” assets, e.g., money in the bank, all but $4,650 of the value of a car.

Here again, CHW is more or less preaching to the choir, since only a few states still impose the standard asset test. And 35, plus the District have none at all.

Or perhaps the sermon was indirectly to House Republicans, who wanted the new Farm Bill to end broad-based categorical eligibility — and with it, states’ flexibility on asset tests.

A last recommendation would keep families from going over the SNAP cliff due to temporary income increases, e.g., occasional spurts in work hours, a lone child support check.

States can require recipients to recertify, i.e., prove they’re still eligible, yearly, instead of at the minimum four-month intervals. Some states and the District already do.

They can also, CHW says, smooth the “peaks and valleys” by averaging income over several months, rather than the prior four weeks.

Either or both of these would eliminate the off-again-on-again-experience that Witness to Hunger Tianna Gaines-Turner, among others, has complained of — and to some extent, the food insecurity they suffer because of the time lag between income dips and SNAP renewals.

Now, as I mentioned, states can do one thing CHW didn’t advocate due to timing. They can prevent the benefits cuts House Republicans got into the Farm Bill by giving SNAP households a somewhat larger LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit.

The LIHEAP benefit can qualify some eligible households for a larger SNAP benefit than they’d otherwise receive. This, in a small way, would mitigate the much larger problem — benefits that are altogether insufficient to cover the costs of a reasonably healthful diet, even before they’re reduced due to income increases.

Eight states have thus far said they’d raise their LIHEAP benefits to the new $20 per year threshold. The District is likely to do the same, since the boost is in the Mayor’s proposed budget — and not controversial, so far as we can tell.

The move certainly is controversial in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has called it “fraud,” though it’s nothing of the sort. Four House committee chairman have demanded to know what the U.S. Health and Human Services Department intends to do about it.

However this plays out, SNAP benefits still leave a very large number of people at risk of hunger, as Feeding America’s new Map the Meal Gap report suggests.

Not much more states can do about this either. The average nationwide cost of a meal is about $1.00 higher than the maximum per meal SNAP benefit for a four-person family. The gap in the District is closer to $2.00 — and presumably similar in other high-cost cities.

States can, however, minimize the number of people for whom hunger is an everyday experience — through better SNAP outreach, for example, and cross-linked benefits processing.

And to return to where I started, they can make it easier for families who’ve inched up the income scale to keep food on the table without coming up short on the rent.

 

 


Of Poverty Traps and Benefits Cliffs

April 28, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan, as we know, views safety net programs as a “poverty trap” because they’re means-tested.

“The federal government effectively discourages … [poor families] from making more money, his War on Poverty report says, because they’ll lose benefits if they do — and pay higher taxes as well.

Whether these prospects actually discourage work is debatable — and at the very least, contingent on many variables. The loss of benefits isn’t. Progressives and conservatives alike have commented on the so-called “cliff effect” — to different ends, as you might imagine.

I’ve been puzzling over policy solutions because cliffs or something very like seem inherent in means-tested programs. And to some extent, they are.

But that doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders — or view the only solution as “universal programs” akin to Medicare, as Roger Senserrich at the Connecticut Association for Human Services apparently does.

A recent report by Children’s HealthWatch shows that we could make progress by looking carefully at the real-world causes and effects of cliffs.

The report focuses on SNAP (the food stamp program) and, as one might expect, effects on children’s health when families lose all or a portion of their benefits due to income increases.

The distinction here indicates that SNAP is already structured to create a downward slope, rather than what the word “cliff” brings to mind. Benefits nevertheless dwindle — and eventually disappear — as income rises.

Families can be hit with a double or triple whammy because other safety net and work support programs are also means-tested. A Witness to Hunger, for example, worked overtime for a month, “and they just cut me off food stamps, and they cut my kids’ medical insurance off.”

This may be one reason that income increases are often not enough to compensate for lost SNAP benefits, as results of a CHW survey show.

For example, young children in families who’d altogether lost their benefits were 78% more likely to be food insecure than those in families who’d consistently received them.

For those in families whose benefits had been reduced, the likelihood was 55% greater. And caregivers were 30% more likely not to seek health care for themselves or another family member because they felt they couldn’t afford it.

The CHW report is entitled Punishing Hard Work, though not only wage increases can send families over the cliff.

They can also lose SNAP benefits when a disabled child starts receiving Supplemental Security Income, for example, or when an absent parent starts paying child support. In either case, children should be better off, but may not be.

CHW advocates several federal policy solutions to moderate the cliff effect.

One reflects a recommendation the Food Research and Action Center has made for many years. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the Thrifty Food Plan as the basis for determining maximum SNAP benefits.

As FRAC has explained — and the Institute of Medicine confirmed — the TFP is unrealistic in various ways. And it understates the costs of foods in the market baskets used to set benefit levels, as CHW itself has shown. Even more so the costs of foods that would make up a healthful diet.

A shift to the Low-Cost Food Plan wouldn’t affect the maximum income threshold, but it would leave families with larger benefits during the tapering-off period.

Two other recommendations address permissible deductions in gross household income. Both would increase the likelihood of a net income below the poverty line — the eligibility cut-off for SNAP.

One would eliminate the cap on deductible housing and utility costs — just $478 a month for most families.

The other would expand the current medical expenses deduction, which is now available only to elderly family members and those who receive disability benefits. Yet families can incur out-of-pocket healthcare costs for other members, even if they’re covered by Medicaid.

These costs often increase with income, as families move to private health insurance plans, as CHW observes. So expanding the medical expense deduction would help preserve one benefit as another shrank.

This is one example of why policymakers should “look across programs to determine … unintended consequences related to increasing family income.”

CHW looks to the Affordable Care Act as a potential vehicle, since it gives states an opportunity to create linkages between healthcare subsidies and other federal benefits.

Well, we know what Congressman Ryan thinks of the ACA. Another “poverty trap,” he calls it.

But if he were really concerned about encouraging people to “begin … getting the dignity of work, rising [sic] their income,” etc., he’d be focusing on the kinds of solutions CHW advocates instead of trying to gut programs like SNAP.

 


More Seniors Facing Hunger Nationwide and in DC

March 17, 2014

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve come upon the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and its latest annual report on (what else?) hunger among seniors in the U.S.

The report encompasses all seniors facing what NFESH calls the “threat of hunger,” i.e., people 60 and over who are, at best, “marginally food secure.” These are seniors who answered in the affirmative to at least one of the survey questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to measure food security or lack thereof.

In 2011, there were 8.8 million seniors who did — 15.2% of the age group.

But 6.7 million of them — 11.6% of the age group — weren’t just teetering on the brink of food insecurity. They were either what NFESH terms at “risk of hunger” or “facing hunger,” i.e., sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

The percents of seniors in these two categories were somewhat lower than what USDA reported for the U.S. population as a whole and also lower than what it reported for adults.

But while USDA’s results were statistically the same as for 2010, the percent of seniors facing hunger rose by more than 15% — to about 1.9 million.

Over the longer haul, both the risk of hunger and hunger itself have trended upward for seniors. Since 2007, when the recession set in, the number of seniors at risk of hunger increased by 49% and the number facing hunger by 48%.

Increases since 2001 were 109% and 200% respectively. The increase for the broader threat of hunger category was lower. So what we seem to be seeing is a worsening hunger situation that can’t be attributed to the economic misfortunes of the recession alone.

Both risk of and actual hunger can be attributed largely to lack of income, of course. Nearly 73% of seniors in these two categories lived below the poverty line. And of these, nearly 41% faced hunger.

As with the poverty rate itself, rates of hunger risk and actual hunger were markedly higher for blacks and Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

For black seniors, the risk of hunger rate was 17.2% and the actual hunger rate 6.8%, as compared to 7.5% and 2.9% for non-Hispanic white seniors. Rates for Hispanic seniors were highest — 18.2% and just under 7%.

Rates were also very high for seniors with disabilities. About 26% were at risk of hunger, and more than 11.5% faced hunger. These figures are, in a general way, consistent with USDA’s findings on food insecurity in households with a working-age disabled member.

They’re also consistent with the extraordinarily high poverty rates consistently reported for people with disabilities in the same 18-64 age range — 27.6% in 2011, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. This is nearly twice as high as the rate for their counterparts without disabilities.

The NFESH hunger rates also, in a general way, correspond to poverty rates geographically. Virtually all the states with the highest hunger risk and actual hunger rates are in the South and Southwest.

The hunger rates don’t altogether track poverty rates, however. For example, the senior poverty rate in the District of Columbia was higher than in all but one state during the 2009-11 period — 23.2%, according to SPM.

Yet both the District’s risk of hunger and actual hunger rates were lower than those of all but nine states — 6.2% and 1.8% respectively.

No cause for celebration here, especially when the hunger rate is notably higher than in 2010. But the figures do suggest that efforts to enroll eligible seniors in SNAP (the food stamp program) and a robust network of emergency food programs make a difference.

They’re also a red flag, as are the nationwide figures. Last November, all SNAP recipients lost a portion of their benefits. The maximum for seniors living alone, as most in the NFESH hunger category seem to be, is now $11 a month less than it was before, leaving them with about $2.07 per meal.

Some SNAP recipients — seniors as well as others — will soon take a second hit because the new Farm Bill restricts the so-called “heat and eat” option, which the District and 15 states have used to boost the value of SNAP benefits, mainly for households whose utility costs are covered in their rent.

Six states have decided to protect their residents from the latest cut by increasing the heating assistance they provide to the $20 million the Farm Bill sets.

Seems to me that the District should do the same. Back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on the latest SNAP household figure, suggests this would cost a bit over $1.6 million a year — hardly a budget-breaker for a city that’s looking forward to more than $6.3 billion in revenues this fiscal year and nearly $6.7 billion next FY.

What NFESH reports for seniors is true for people of all ages. Food insecurity has a wide range of adverse health impacts. Bad for kids in other ways too.

Restoring SNAP benefits would more than pay off in healthcare and other savings, revenues generated by increased local spending and greater well-being for a whole lot of vulnerable people.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, Stateline reported that seven states have said they will block the cuts that would otherwise result from the new “heat and eat” threshold. It says the District will as well. Responding to a survey, some unidentified source said D.C. would “find a solution,” without specifying where the money would come from.

The estimated cost is lower than what I calculated — less than $1.4 million, including what the District has been spending on “utility aid.”


SNAP Cut Bad, But Defeat of Farm Bill Would Have Risked Much Worse

February 5, 2014

Last Friday, the House passed the new Farm Bill that conferees had lengthily negotiated. Most Democrats voted against it. The Senate passed the bill yesterday, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans voting in favor. The White House has said the President will sign it.

So it’s a done deal. Some agricultural interests, e.g., rice and peanut farmers, are celebrating. Virtually no one else, I think, is altogether happy — and certainly not those of us who advocate for strong safety net programs.

Some anti-hunger advocates had urged Congress members to defeat the bill because, as I’m sure you know, it includes a cut in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

But in this case, I think a victory could well have paved the way for a more devastating defeat. So I’m disappointed, but at the same time relieved.

What If the Farm Bill Hadn’t Passed?

The cut amounts to $8.6 billion over 10 years. It’s achieved by establishing a new restriction on a provision commonly known as “heat and eat.” An estimated 850,000 households — 1.7 million people — will lose, on average, $90 a month in SNAP benefits.

Like other advocates, I’d have much preferred a Farm Bill that increased SNAP benefits, which were too low even before earlier decisions by Congress resulted in benefits losses last November.

But the Farm Bill could have been far, far worse, as the standalone nutrition part the House passed shows. It would have reduced SNAP funding by at least $39 billion over 10 years. Some  3.8 million people would have lost their benefits entirely.

And the House bill included some other truly pernicious provisions, including an incentive for states to deny SNAP benefits to as many low-income jobless adults as possible. Their children also.

These provisions are all gone, with one limited exception. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives the details, plus a section-by-section summary of the whole nutrition part of the bill.

What would we have seen next year if majorities in the House and Senate had rejected the Farm Bill? I wouldn’t have wanted to chance it, given the iffy prospects for continuing Democratic control of the Senate.

This is why I concur with the bottom line reached by CBPP President Robert Greenstein.

He too would like to have seen higher SNAP benefits and/or other changes that would raise them for households with extremely high housing costs, but believes the compromise is the best we were likely to get.

Even if Republicans don’t gain a majority in the Senate, the “heat and eat” restriction could have worked its way into an annual appropriations bill if the Farm Bill hadn’t been reauthorized — or perhaps imposed through regulation.

As Greenstein says, the provision would have been tightened sooner or later because it “won’t withstand public scrutiny.”

What Is This “Heat and Eat” Business Anyway?

As I’ve written before, the “heat and eat” provision allows states to apply a standard utility allowance, i.e., an assumed cost for basic utilities, when they calculate a household’s shelter costs if the household received a benefit from the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program.

In some cases, this results in a larger SNAP benefit than households would otherwise receive because it boost their shelter costs over 50% of their income.

The provision was originally intended to simplify administration, since receipt of a LIHEAP benefit clearly indicated that a household was paying — or trying to pay — its utility bills, rather than paying them as a portion of its rent and that it just as clearly was struggling with “excess shelter costs.”

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of the “heat and eat” option. They provide a minimal LIHEAP benefit — a rock-bottom 10 cents in California — to maximize the SNAP benefits their residents qualify for, including those whose utility costs are folded into their rent.

One would be hard put, I think, to deny that they’re exploiting a loophole, though for the best of reasons. Utility costs are often high, whether paid directly or indirectly. And LIHEAP funding doesn’t enable states to help all who need it — fewer indeed than it used to.

So some SNAP households really do have to choose between heating and eating. More generally, as I’ve already said, SNAP benefits are too low — even at the maximum levels.

Congress nevertheless intended the “heat and eat” provision to reduce paperwork burdens, not give states a way to boost benefits.

The new Farm Bill doesn’t do away with the provision altogether. But it does close the loophole. States can still apply the SUA based on a LIHEAP benefit, but only for households that receive at least $20 a year — the threshold in the original House bill.

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. I believe this was the best possible outcome, given what House Republicans had put on the table — and what might well have become law if the Farm Bill had gone back to the drawing board.

A sad conclusion nonetheless.


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