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.

Benefits Boost for DC TANF Families Would Halt Value Loss, But Not Give Them Enough for Basic Needs

September 3, 2013

Here’s a modest, overdue reform that may finally get some legislative action — an increase in the extraordinarily low cash benefits for families in the District of Columbia’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program.

A bill introduced by DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and Marion Barry would give the benefits an initial boost and then keep them from losing value due to inflation, as they do now.

The initial boost would be small — 15%, plus whatever the CPI-U (the consumer price index most commonly used for inflation adjustments) indicates the cost-of-living increase for the first year should be. The same COLA would then apply in following years.

Benefits haven’t been increased for five years now. And earlier increases weren’t enough to keep them at the same already-low level below the federal poverty line.

So even families whose benefits haven’t been deliberately cut have less, in real dollars, than they would have had in 1990, the year before COLAs were eliminated.

If the COLA had been consistently in force, a family of three would be eligible for a maximum of about $731 a month, instead of $428, assuming no other increases during the last 13 years.

This would put the family at about 45% of the federal poverty line. It’s instead at 26.3%, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s graph of the downward slide shows.

The Graham-Barry bill wouldn’t make up for the full purchasing power lost. DCFPI estimates the maximum for the family of three at $492 a month — presumably if the bill were swiftly passed and signed. Which it probably won’t be.

What will happen almost immediately is a benefits cut for families who’ve participated in TANF for more than five years. Those who were over this lifetime limit the Council agreed to in late 2010 will get a second cut in October.

A family of three will then receive, at most, $257 a month — unless it belongs to one of the groups for whom the time limit will be suspended.

TANF benefits are already absurdly low, even for families still under the time limit. Consider, for example, that the rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment would cost our three-person family more than three times its entire maximum benefit.

Well, that apartment’s obviously not in the family’s budget. And I doubt it will be.

The DC Department of Human Services seems to believe otherwise, since it’s still banking heavily on rapid re-housing to solve the family homelessness crisis — and more specifically, to get families out of (or keep them out of) the DC General shelter.

Most of them are in the TANF program — or assumed eligible. They’re likely to have, at most, a year of subsidized housing before they have to pick up the full costs of rent.

Possible for those who’ve suffered a temporary setback. Unlikely, I think. for the many headed by parents who have significant barriers to employment — let alone employment at a wage that would make an apartment affordable.

For that, the parent of our three-person TANF family would have to land a job paying $56,760 next year — more than three times the local minimum wage.

Meanwhile, all TANF families — and many D.C. residents who aren’t in the program — will lose a portion of their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in November because of decisions Congress has already made.

Roughly 144,000 residents — 22% of the District’s population — will have to stretch their very low benefits even further, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The loss for our family of three will be $29 a month — or about 45% of the increase it would get under the Graham-Barry bill.

In short, the proposal is certainly better than letting the District’s TANF benefits slide further and further below what families need for basic living costs.

But it won’t give them even the support they had when the program was created. They’ll still, in many cases, be in what DCFPI policy analyst Kate Coventry terms “a state of constant crisis.”

“Very difficult for parents to fully focus on job preparation activities” in such circumstances, she adds.

Even a considerably larger TANF boost would still leave them at high risk of homelessness — if they’re not homeless already — because a big part of that “constant crisis” is the woeful shortage of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income families here.

Also the woeful shortage of long-term housing vouchers that would make more housing affordable.

The Graham-Barry bill would still, as I said, be a step in the right direction. I’d like to see a bigger step when/if the Council decides to act on it.

But obviously the problems facing poor families in the District (and elsewhere) are bigger than any one policy change can resolve.

New Food Stamp Cuts on the Horizon Again

May 20, 2013

Another session of Congress. Another chapter in the perils to SNAP (the food stamp program), as Congress tries again to pass a new Farm Bill.

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee finished a bill that cuts the program by $4.1 billion over the next 10 years. This is slightly less than last year’s proposed cut, but only because the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate has changed.

The House Agriculture Committee boosted its food stamp cuts to approximately $21 billion* over the same 10-year period. This $4.5 billion increase over last year reflects substantive changes in the proposed legislation.

Senate Agriculture Committee’s Cut

The Senate Agriculture Committee decided again to impose a restriction on a provision commonly known as “heat and eat.”

As things stand now, states can give households the maximum allowance for household utility costs if they receive any benefit from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

In some, but not all cases, this entitles them to a larger food stamp benefit because it reduces their adjusted income.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill would restrict “heat and eat” to households that receive more than $10 a year from LIHEAP — directly or as a payment to their utility company.

CBO earlier estimated that this change would reduce benefits for nearly 500,000 households by an average of $90 a month.

Since then, sequestration has cut LIHEAP funding by nearly $270.8 million — this on top of cuts totaling $1.6 billion since Fiscal Year 2010.

So the 15 states and the District of Columbia that now use the “heat and eat” option will be hard put to protect all beneficiaries from benefits cuts, but not as hard put as under the House Agriculture Committee’s bill.

House Agriculture Committee’s Cuts

Last year, the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill adopted the same “heat and eat” restriction as the Senate’s.

Its new bill raises the minimum LIHEAP benefit required to $20 in any given year. This would increase the number of households affected to about 850,000, according to CBO estimates reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Most of House Agriculture’s food stamp savings, however, come from a restriction it would again impose on an option known as categorical eligibility.

At this point, states can, in some cases, use the same gross income and asset limits for food stamp eligibility as they use for programs they fund out of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant or funds they spend to meet their maintenance-of-effort requirement.

The alternative cut-offs may be used for households that receive any TANF-funded benefit or service, as well as those that receive cash assistance from the Supplemental Security Income program or a state general assistance program.

They enable some low-income people — mainly working families and seniors — to receive food stamp benefits although the standard gross income and/or asset limit would disqualify them.

These are hardly people who don’t need food assistance, as CBPP explains.

A working family may have a gross income higher than 130% of the federal poverty line, but far less than the FPL after allowable costs are deducted.

A senior may have somewhat more than $3,250 in retirement savings to supplement a Social Security benefit that leaves him/her well below the FPL, as would be the case for a former minimum wage worker.

So-called broad-based categorical eligibility, i.e., eligibility based on receipt of any TANF benefit, enables people like these to receive food stamps.

All but 10 states use it to ease the standard, very restrictive asset maximum — $2,000, except for seniors. Fourteen states and the District use it to allow a somewhat higher gross income as well.

The House Agriculture Committee eliminates broad-based categorical eligibility by restricting cat-el to households that receive cash assistance from TANF or one of the other aforementioned programs.

CBO has estimated that 1.8 million fewer low-income people would receive food stamp benefits. The Office of Management and Budget put the figure at 3 million.

CBO also estimates that 210,000 children wouldn’t get free school meals any more because their eligibility depends on their family’s participation in the food stamp program.

So they’d be doubly deprived — as would their parents, who’d have to pay for all their kids meals, as well as their own.

The House Agriculture Committee’s bill also cuts funding for the nutrition education program that’s part of SNAP.

The $274 million cut would come on top of a $110 million cut Congress made in January — this to offset the costs of averting a milk price spike that would otherwise have resulted from its failure to pass a Farm Bill last year.

So families who don’t get dumped out of the food stamp program will get less help in learning how to make healthy food choices they can afford.

This is already a challenge. But it will soon get harder, even without any new “heat and eat” restriction, because earlier raids on the food stamp program will reduce benefits for all participants at the end of October.

To top off the savings, the House Agriculture Committee eliminates the bonuses USDA has been awarding states for outstanding performance and notable improvements in key aspects of program administration.

The bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures told the Committee last year that the bonuses had proved effective, noting that the payment error rate was at a record low.

But the Committee’s bill would end them anyway, just as last year’s bill would have.

So we’ve got two very different bills — and an upcoming battle royal in the House.

What the end result of all this will be is anybody’s guess.

What’s clear, however, is that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is spinning his bill when he says that it “won’t take a calorie off the plate of anyone who needs help.”

Even the Senate Ag Committee’s Farm Bill would. And it’s not nearly so bad.

* The somewhat smaller figure you may have read elsewhere is the total for all the changes that have budgetary impacts in the Nutrition title of the Farm Bill . Modest increases for The Emergency Food Assistance Program and several other items account for the difference.

Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 160 other followers