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. SomeĀ  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.


Message to Congress: “We Can’t ‘Food-Bank’ Our Way Out of Hunger

November 25, 2013

Katy Waldman at Slate interviews Debra, a single mother who lives in the District of Columbia. Her 21-year-old daughter is till living with her and unemployed. The conversation centers on the recent cuts in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

They used to have meat on the weekends — a festive (and healthful) break from the weekday lunchmeats. But “meat is going to be a huge problem now.”

“The good thing” is that a church will give her a turkey for Thanksgiving. She doesn’t know what else she’ll have on the table. Like as not, one infers, it will come from one of the two local food pantries she visits monthly — Bread for the City and Martha’s Table.

I’d been thinking about the churches and other charitable organizations that make Thanksgiving meals possible for low-income families. And about charitable individuals also, since our local grocery store again has collection carts for customers to put non-perishables in.

Free Thanksgiving meals and fixings are an old tradition. But, of course, the risk of hunger — and hunger itself — aren’t just holiday events.

Millions of people, like Debra, now rely on food pantries for something to put on the table, even though they’re enrolled in SNAP.

Food pantries have reported longer lines, increased needs to ration, even needs to turn people away ever since the recession began. It’s a tad early to know how the recent SNAP cuts have further strained their capacity to meet need. But reports have begun trickling in.

For example, a spokesperson for the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply well over 500 pantries and other nonprofits, says, “We see more people call into the food bank for assistance, we see more people come into our partner agencies, and they’re requesting more and more food every day.”

And no wonder when, in the District alone, more than 144,000 residents lost a portion of their SNAP benefits, which were only, on average, $1.50 per meal before.

The cuts in the District amount to a total first-year loss of $15 million. This is far more than our local feeding programs can make up for.

Martha’s Table, for example, has an annual food budget of $1 million, its president Patty Stonesifer says in an op-ed jointly written with D.C. Hunger Solutions Director Alexandra Ashbrook.

The SNAP cuts nationwide will total about $11 billion by 2016. That translates into an estimated 10 million lost meals a day for close to three years — at least 250 million by the time you read this.

There’s obviously no way that churches and other charitable organizations could ramp up to supply so many more meals or the equivalent in groceries.

At this point, all the food they provide to hungry people is only about 6% of what federal nutrition programs provide, says Bread for the World President David Beckmann, a leading anti-hunger voice in the faith-based community.

Well, you know where this is going.

Most members of Congress are home now. And most are probably looking forward to a Thanksgiving feast.

When they return, they’ll have just eight scheduled working days to pass a new Farm Bill before they go back home for an extended holiday season.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas says the negotiators are getting closer to a compromise. “The struggle,” he adds, “is how do you deliver the safety net.” By which he means, how will we provide farm businesses with taxpayer-subsidized protections against losing money.

Most of us, I suppose, thought the real safety net issue was how much more the Farm Bill would cut SNAP.

Negotiators have a real struggle to the bridge the gap between the Senate’s $4 billion cut and House cuts that total $39 billion, plus some unestimated savings achieved by an incentive for states to adopt new work requirements that would shrink their SNAP rolls.

Some Democrats are reportedly leaning toward a $10 billion cut, not counting the potential effects of some policy changes that would be thrown in as sweeteners for House Republicans.

Time was when addressing hunger in America was a bipartisan endeavor, as former Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle remind us.

Now the bipartisan deal, should there be one, would, at the very least, make hunger more frequent for people like Debra, who already sometimes skips meals so her daughter can eat.

She’s nevertheless fortunate to live in a community where a large network of faith-based and other nonprofit organizations strive to ensure that low-income — and no-income — people don’t suffer from malnutrition.

That they can do as much as they do is a credit to compassion (in the literal sense) that moves so many well-fed people to donate their services, money and/or in-kind gifts.

But, as Beckmann says, “We can’t ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger.” Food banks and the programs they help supply have confirmed this in no uncertain terms.

You’d think, by now, Congress would have gotten the message — and had second thoughts about squeezing more money out of SNAP.


New Food Insecurity Figures Bolster Case Against Food Stamp Cuts

September 6, 2013

The just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report is a half-empty, half-full story.

The half-full part is that the food insecurity rate, i.e., the percent of households that didn’t always have enough food to support “an active, healthy life for all members,” wasn’t significantly higher in 2012 than in 2011 — and in fact, has remained basically flat since the recession set in.

This is also true, though only since 2009, for what USDA terms the “very low food security” rate, i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes had to skimp on or skip meals because there wasn’t enough food for everyone.

The half-empty part is that the rate hasn’t dropped. So a very large number of people, including children, were at risk of hunger — or sometimes actually hungry — because they (or their parents) couldn’t afford to buy enough food.

Needless to say (I hope), both the food insecurity rate and the very low food security rate were considerably higher last year than in 2007 — one of many indicators that the Great Recession caused significant, continuing hardships for lower-income Americans.

Almost surely greater hardships than the figures show because, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the survey USDA uses doesn’t include homeless people.

Here are some of the top-line figures, a handful of breakouts and a few remarks on policy implications.

The Big Picture

  • 17.6 million U.S. households (14.5%) were food insecure in 2012.
  • Of these, more than 6.9 million (5.7%) had very low food insecurity.
  • Well over 48.9 million people were food insecure and about 17.2 million of them sometimes without enough to eat.
  • About 8.3 million children (11.3%) lived in households where they and/or other children were food insecure.
  • And though adults generally protect children from hunger, 977,000 children and/or their siblings didn’t always get enough to eat.

Demographic Disparities

Not surprisingly, food insecurity rates mirror disparate poverty and unemployment rates. Thus, for example:

  • The food insecurity rate for black households was more than double the rate for white, non-Hispanic households — 24.6%, as compared to 11.2%.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was nearly as high as the rate for black households — 23.3%.
  • The food insecurity rate for single-mother families was 35.4% and the very low food security rate 12.7% — nearly four times the rate for married-couple families.

Also not surprisingly, state food insecurity rates varied markedly — from 20.9% in Mississippi to 8.7% in North Dakota, which weathered the recession remarkably well.

The food insecurity rate for the District of Columbia was 12% and the very low food security rate 4.5%. As with the state rates, these are two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small survey sample sizes.

Worse to Come?

Half the households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income cut-off for SNAP (food stamp) eligibility — received SNAP benefits all year and were nevertheless food insecure.

Confirmation, were any needed, that SNAP benefits are, for many families, too low now.

Yet, unless Congress does something unexpected, all SNAP households will lose a portion of their benefits in November. They’ll have, on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal — hardly enough for “a healthy, active life.”

Meanwhile, the House Republican leadership seems ready to introduce the missing nutrition part of the Farm Bill it passed in July.

A briefing paper Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently circulated indicates that, as expected, the proposal will cut SNAP by $40 billion or more over the next 10 years.

At least four million and perhaps as many as six million low-income people would lose their benefits, according to CBPP estimates.

At the same time, about 210,000 children would lose their eligibility for free school meals because it’s tied to their family’s participation in SNAP.

I’d like to hope, but really don’t that the USDA report would give House Republicans pause.

What it could do is drive another nail in the coffin of a split-the-difference compromise between the House and the Senate, which passed a Farm Bill with a much smaller SNAP cut.

Not that any cut is called for, mind you. We’ve already got 12.7 million more food insecure people in America than we had in 2007. And even the lower number speaks ill of a country with as much wealth as ours.


Low-Income People Face Barriers to Savings, Including Mandated Asset Limits

August 5, 2013

The Corporation for Enterprise Development defines asset poverty as insufficient net worth to subsist at a poverty level for three months without income. In 2010, 26% of households nationwide were asset poor by this definition.

Far more — nearly 44% — were liquid asset poor. In other words, they didn’t have enough money in a bank account and/or investments that could readily be converted to cash to cover basic expenses for three months if no additional money was coming in.

These, needless to say, are households at high risk of what CFED refers to as “economic catastrophe.”

We don’t know how many of them are low-income households, though we can be quite sure a large number are. What’s sure as can-be is that their financial practices have garnered a lot of attention.

This, in and of itself, is altogether reasonable. Much smaller events than a three-month spell without income can spell economic catastrophe if paychecks or cash benefits barely cover routine living costs.

What do you do, for example, if the car you need to work breaks down? You’re staring at an economic catastrophe if you haven’t got some money stashed away.

If not a job loss, then one of those short-term, high-interest loans that often turn into a debt trap, as the Center for American Progress warns.

Looked at from another perspective, extra money in the bank or the equivalent can, as CFED says, pave the way to long-term financial security and opportunities we associate with the evanescent American Dream.

Low-income people surely know this as well as the top 1%, who reportedly own more than 35% of all privately-held wealth in the country.

Yet the former face a variety of barriers to savings. The always-quotable Heritage Foundation says they’re especially afflicted by “weaknesses” in “character traits” like grit, perseverance and the capacity to delay gratification.

Yet even it acknowledges other issues — a lack of familiarity with “the mainstream financial system,” inconvenient bank locations and hours, high bank fees, etc.

Add to these relatively low levels of financial literacy, e.g., the skills needed to assess the costs of relying on a check cashing service because you don’t have a bank account — or do, but use the service anyway.

And then there’s the matter of what deferring a little gratification would net. It’s one thing if you’re setting aside, say, $500 a month, quite another if $5.00 is the most you think you can afford.

Well, we’ve got a host of programs designed to show low-income people how they could save — even give them an incentive to do so in the form of a match.

And by and large, they seem to work, though not for everyone or for all purposes.

Even the federal government seeks to promote asset building among low and moderate-income people. At this level, however, we see policies operating at cross-purposes — one ineffective, the other regrettably not.

Since 2001, low and moderate-income taxpayers have been able to claim a credit for up to $2,000 they invest in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or IRA.

This is a far less generous incentive than the tax breaks that benefit mainly filers who’ve already got considerable wealth — the mortgage interest and property tax deductions, plus the preferential rates for long-term capital gains and dividends.

More importantly, the Saver’s Credit does nothing at all for low-income workers who’d owe nothing to the IRS, even without it because it’s not a refundable credit like the EITC.

At the same time, a number of major federal safety net programs limit the assets beneficiaries may have.

There may be some exclusions, e.g., a home, a defined pension benefit, but liquid assets a beneficiary can tap are characteristically set somewhere in the $2,000-$3,000 range.

For most, but not all programs, states can lift or waive the asset limits. Or they can altogether exclude certain types of assets. They’ve responded variously, as you might expect.

They’ve no role in any eligibility criteria for Supplemental Security Income, however. For a single person, the limit for resources counted, including money in bank accounts, retirement savings and other investments, is $2,000 — and has been since 1989.

Thus, reports one of my blog followers, s/he can’t get the air conditioning in her mobile home repaired because that would cost more than the total s/he can have in savings. “So I use a swamp cooler in the desert and try to stay cool with a water pump that’s not quite good enough.”

SNAP (the food stamp program) uses the same asset limit, except for elderly and certain disabled people, who are allowed $1,250 more.

However, states can bypass the asset limit for families who’ve already qualified for benefits funded through their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs. This is one of the major features of what’s known as broad-based categorical eligibility.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have adopted it. All but five set no asset limit, thus enabling very low-income families to put some money aside — perhaps with a match if they’ve earned income by working.

The House Republican majority wants to put a stop to all this. Seems they’re all for personal responsibility (and flexibility for states), but not when it comes to poor people trying to create a little nest egg — or even just have enough to get their air conditioning fixed.

But, as you probably know, the nearly $21 billion they’d save, in part by eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility didn’t satisfy.

We can be quite sure that any alternative SNAP bill they manage to agree on will seek to reinstate the standard asset limit nationwide, as well as the standard gross income limit.

Meanwhile, the preferential capital gains and dividend rates will cost the federal government an estimated $161 billion this year alone.


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