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.
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.”
Sixteen 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.