House Agriculture Committee Slashes Food Stamp Program

April 22, 2012

You can’t have both guns and butter. House Republicans have taken this old piece of federal budget wisdom seriously. They’ve opted for guns — not over butter, but over food assistance for poor people.

The guns at issue here are funds for defense. Sequestration, i.e., the annual across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act, would reduce them by $54.7 billion a year.

Nobody in a position of power wants those cuts, including the President.

His proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget would hit the total deficit reduction targets in the BCA by a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. It would also, as the BCA does, protect certain key programs for low-income people, including food stamps.

House Republicans will have none of this. Their budget plan, among other things, charged six committees to come up with more non-defense savings — enough to hit the deficit reduction targets, but without touching defense.

The House Agriculture Committee had to save $33.2 billion over the next 10 years, beginning with $8.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.

It could have gone after the costly subsidies our government pays to farmers — actually, for the most part, large farming operations.

Some of these provide special benefits for producing certain crops, e.g., yearly payments (even if the farmer grows nothing), compensation to make up for lower market prices. Another subsidizes insurance against crop losses. Yet farmers also get compensated when droughts, frosts, etc. ruin their crops.

All told, these subsidies cost some $25 billion a year. Nice safety net, huh?

The House budget plan itself identifies some of these subsidies for “reforms.” But they’re for another day.

So the Agriculture Committee, heeding “assumptions” made by the Budget Committee found its mandated savings — all of them and more — in the food stamp program.

First, it would shave months off the expiring boost in benefits that was part of the Recovery Act. They’re now scheduled to end in November 2013 — thanks to earlier cutbacks Congress made to offset the costs of other measures.

Under the House Agriculture plan, the boost would end two months from now. For a family of four, this would mean $57 less per month, according to a new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The bulk of the savings, however, would come from two changes in the food stamp law itself.

One of them would, in effect, require households to be poorer to qualify for food stamps.

Under current law, a household can generally have no more than $2,000 in assets — or $3,250 if any of its members is a senior or a person with a disability. Total household income must be no greater than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line.

But most states — and the District of Columbia — have used an option in the law to eliminate the asset test. They’ve expanded their definition of “categorical eligibility,” i.e., types of low-income households that automatically qualify for food stamps.

This not only allows low-income families to conserve what they can for unexpected expenses. It also lets states raise the income eligiibilty threshold up to 200% of the federal poverty line — the level that many analysts use for classifying the low-income population.

The House Agriculture Committee would put a stop to this. Only households in which all members receive cash assistance could be deemed categorically eligible.

No more categorical eligibility for those that receive other types of publicly-funded support for low-income people, e.g., child care subsidies, job training.

Nor for households where only the children receive cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or as Supplemental Security Income.

At least two million people — perhaps as many as three million –would be forced out of the program. More than 280,000 children would lose not only food stamp benefits, but free school meals.

The other change in existing law would permanently reduce the benefits some households receive — again by severely limiting an option a growing number of states now use.

Briefly, the complicated formula states must ordinarily use to calculate food stamp eligibility and benefits levels includes an income allowance for utility costs, based on those applicants actually have to pay for.

But if the family receives benefits from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, it automatically qualifies for the maximum allowance.

Fourteen states — and the District — have given families in the food stamp program a small LIHEAP benefit. Some of the families get higher food stamp benefits as a result. No big windfall here, however.

The House Agriculture Committee would virtually eliminate the so-called “heat and eat” option — or so I infer, since it expects to save $14 billion.

All this would be in addition to, not instead of the $133.5 billion House Republicans intend to save by converting the food stamp program to a block grant.

Moral of this story: Some people’s safety nets are worthier than others.


Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

February 27, 2012

Some years ago, I was fired from a job I’d had for a long time. I was told my position had been restructured out of existence. But it sure felt like firing to me.

This was during a recession. And as time went on — and hopes dwindled — I got to thinking about what would happen if I never found work again.

I realized that I couldn’t rely on any of the major public benefits programs because I was a relatively young, able-bodied adult with no children.

If I’d sunk into poverty earlier, I could have gotten food stamps — though hardly at a level that would have enabled me to eat three squares a day.

But Congress had decided that people like me had to earn their food stamps by demonstrating personal responsibility — this as part of the same law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As with the TANF, “personal responsibility” means, among other things, working or preparing for work.

So under ordinary circumstances, most of us able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period unless we’re working at least 20 hours a week or engaged, for the same amount of time, in a job training or workfare program, i.e., unpaid public service.

The Recovery Act suspended this time limit through September 2010. President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget would have reinstated the suspension.

But the proposal went nowhere. Hardly surprising when House Republicans had decided that the food stamp program was growing out of all compass and should be converted to a block grant like TANF.

For the most part, however, ABAWDs have been okay because the law allows states to get a waiver from the time limit for those who live in areas where the unemployment rate is over 10% or there are “insufficient jobs.”

I’ve tried to figure out whether this long-standing policy will provide a reasonable substitute for a reinstatement of the Recovery Act suspension. Very difficult because most of the available data are for states as a whole, not areas within states.

This much seems clear. Very few, if any agencies will be able to claim a statewide waiver in Fiscal Year 2013.

As of December, unemployment rates were higher than 10% in only four states and the District of Columbia. Seems likely that fewer states will qualify on this basis when the new fiscal year begins.

Which leaves the “insufficient jobs” option. Memos from the federal Food Nutrition Service indicate that it’s been using the trigger criteria for the Extended Benefits portion of unemployment insurance to decide whether states qualify for a year-long statewide waiver.

As I wrote awhile ago, states “trigger off” EB when their average unemployment rate for the current three-month period is no longer at least 6.5% higher than during the comparable period in a recent prior year.

So more states will fall off the trigger list as time goes on, even though their unemployment rates are well above normal.

This doesn’t mean states won’t be able to claim waivers. But it seems they’ll have to revert to the much more restrictive Department of Labor “surplus area” lists — generally local jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20% higher than the national rate.

Perhaps in ordinary times it makes sense to say that able-bodied adults who need food stamp benefits should work or prepare for work if they can. Whether they should be coerced into working for no pay is a separate issue.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

There are still nearly four times as many people looking for work as jobs available.

Job re-training programs are reportedly stressed to the max. And it seems reasonable to suppose that a fair number of the longer-term jobless ABAWDs have already completed one anyway. Doubtful they could get into another that would carry them through till they found work.

So the end of the current ABAWD waivers will almost surely mean that more low-income people go hungry. Seems unfair to punish them because jobs are scarce and they’ve no one but themselves to support.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget again proposes a time-limit suspension. I’d like to think it will pass this time, but that’s more hope for change than I can muster.


Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republicans Vote To End Food Stamp Program As We Know It

May 5, 2011

I remarked awhile ago that parts of the House Republican Study Committee’s global attack on “welfare” could make their way into legislation that had a better chance of passing.

And sure enough. The budget plan House Republicans have passed includes a provision that would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) into a block grant rather like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Lest one doubt the motive, the plan projects savings totaling $127 billion over the first 10 years alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates losses to the District of Columbia and its food stamp-dependent households at $350 million.

I’ve written elsewhere about what the block grant could mean for households that depend on food stamps to keep food on the table.

Briefly, the block grant would put an inflexible constraint on spending, while presumably increasing flexibility on issues like participation criteria and benefits.

So Congress or states, at their discretion, could — and probably would have to — change eligibility standards so that people would have to be even poorer to qualify for food stamps and/or reduce monthly benefits so that they no longer had any basis in the costs of a nutritious diet.

We can see how the spending cap/flexibility model could play out by looking at states’ TANF programs.

According to a recent Legal Momentum review, only 40% of eligible families were enrolled in TANF in 2005, as compared to 84% in the last year of its non-block grant predecessor.

Cash benefits for a TANF family of three are less than 50% of the federal poverty line in every states and less than 30% in more than half. In all but two, they’re worth less in real-dollar value than when the program was created.

The food stamp block grant proposal has other radical implications.

It would end the long-standing principle that everyone (except some immigrants) whose income falls below the cut-off can get food stamps — and for as long as their income remains that low.

As with TANF, there would be new work requirements. But unlike TANF, there’d apparently be no federal funding within the program for client assessments, job training or the supportive services some recipients would need to meet the requirements, e.g., child care subsidies.

More importantly, food stamp benefits would be time-limited, just as TANF cash benefits are. After some number of years, people would be kicked out of the program, unless states chose to cover the full costs of the benefits themselves.

Would there by any exemptions — say, for people who are too young, too old or too disabled to work? For people who are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves or their families?

The budget plan doesn’t say. Doubtful the House members who voted for it — or even the drafters — have thought through such consequential details.

All they’re concerned about is cutting federal spending, except when it comes to the more than 50% of annual appropriations that go to the military.

But, like the RSC, the budget plan styles the food stamp block grant as the next step in “the historic bipartisan welfare reform” that gave us TANF.

Here’s hoping we’ve got no bipartisan support for this one — or lock-step support from Senate Republicans either.


Food Security Report Shows Federal Nutrition Programs Working, But Not Well Enough

December 8, 2010

The recent U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security report confirms what we were already quite sure of. The number of food insecure households increased again last year. These are households that, at some point during the year, couldn’t afford to buy enough food for all members to have “active healthy lives.”

The increase wasn’t all that great — 17.4 million households, as compared to 17 million in 2008. But both years’ food insecurity rates were the highest USDA had found since it started doing nationally-representative surveys in 1995.

Similarly, the number of families that were very food insecure inched up a bit — from 6.7 million to 6.8 million. In other words, during the last two years, about a third of all food insecure families had such limited resources that at least one member sometimes had to cut back on the size of his/her meals or skip some altogether.

A breakdown of the household figures tells us that more than 50 million people — 16.6% of the population — suffered food insecurity last year. For children, the rate was an alarming 23.2%. That’s 17.2 million children at risk of hunger.

While this is bad news, it could have been much worse, given the sharp rise in the unemployment rate — up from 7.4% at the end of 2008 to 10% by the end of 2009.

As many have observed, the food stamp program seems to be serving its safety net function, with participation continuously rising to new record levels.

On the other hand, the federal nutrition assistance programs aren’t reaching nearly as many low-income households as they should. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only about two-thirds of eligible people are enrolled in the food stamp program.

During the 2008-9 school year, fewer than half the children poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfasts at their school. Figures for federally-subsidized summer meal programs are even worse.

Nor apparently are the benefits the major programs offer sufficient. About 35% of food insecure households and 56% of very food insecure households received food stamps. By definition, they still couldn’t consistently afford to keep enough food on the table.

Turning to the District, the figures we get are less accurate because USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for small state-level samples. The latest figures thus minimize the impacts of the recession.

With that caveat, 12.9% of D.C. households were food insecure, putting the District below the national rate and smack dab in the middle of a state-by-state ranking.

Somewhat less than a third of these households (4.5%) were very food insecure. On this measure, the District ranks lower than 36 states. So, as DC Hunger Solutions says, local efforts may be paying off.

We don’t know how many of the food insecure households were receiving food stamps during the period covered by the USDA average. What we do know is that, beginning in April 2009, those that did began receiving higher-than-usual food stamp benefits due to the nationwide 13.6% maximum boost provided by the economic recovery act.

Now the duration of the boost has been scaled back — first to help pay for some additional fiscal relief to the states and again when the House adopted the Senate’s version of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. The Congressional Research Services estimates the loss when the boost ends at $10 to $15 per person per month.

Look for a bigger uptick in food insecurity when that happens, both nationwide and here in the District.


DC Food Stamp Program Expansion Stalled

January 16, 2010

Last March, DC Councilmember Michael Brown introduced a bill to help significantly more District residents afford to keep food on the table. Aptly titled the Food Stamp Expansion Act, the legislation proposed to both raise the eligibility ceiling for food stamp benefits and increase the dollar value of the benefits many participants could receive.

As its many supporters said, the bill was a timely–and smart–response to the recession.

  • More hard-pressed individuals and families would be able to stave off hunger without foregoing other basic necessities.
  • Their benefits would be higher not only because the legislation would change the income calculation, but because the economic recovery act included an across-the-board percentage increase for food stamps.
  • The additional relief would cost the city virtually nothing because the federal government pays the full cost of food stamps.
  • Those extra federal funds would stimulate the local economy, delivering an estimated $1.73 in growth per food stamp dollar.

On June 2, the DC Council approved the bill as part of the District’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget. By then, the D.C. unemployment rate had risen from 9.8% to 10.9%.

Nearly seven months later, the unemployment rate stands at 11.8%. It’s over 28% in Ward 8. And that reflects only people who are actively looking for work.

Yet the Income Maintenance Administration still hasn’t implemented the food stamp program expansion–something it could have done a long time ago without new legislation.

Who knows how many struggling individuals and families haven’t gotten the benefits they’re entitled to? Who knows how many millions of federal dollars have been lost?

I’m told that reprogramming the computers to implement the legislation is a complex business. And, of course, the increasing food stamp caseload is stressing agency resources. But the agency has known for 10 months that it would have to change its system. And it originally said it would have the work completed in October.

Does anyone at IMA feel a sense of urgency about this?


DC Set to Expand Food Stamp Program

March 18, 2009

As local news sources have reported, City Councilmember Michael Brown has introduced a bill that will deliver more food stamp benefits to more low-income D.C. residents. This is legislation that deserves to pass, and all signs are that it will.

I got curious about how the Food Stamp Expansion Act could do what its name says, given that food stamps are a federal program. Here’s what I learned.

Basically, Brown’s bill will require the Fenty administration to take advantage of two options in the food stamp program.

For the first option, it will require the Mayor to establish a program that gives all food stamp recipients a token $1 per year of assistance under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Under the federal food stamp rules, this will entitle them to have their utility allowance calculated according to a standard formula.

The utility allowance is one of the deductions used to determine net income–the basis for determining the dollar value of the benefit a household can receive. So the end result of the LIHEAP assistance will be a larger food stamp benefit for many recipients.

For the second option, the Brown bill will require the Mayor to adopt an expanded definition of “categorical eligibility.” An issue brief by D.C. Hunger Solutions explains what this will mean. To summarize…

Under the standard federal food stamp rules, most households can’t receive food stamps unless their gross income is at or below 130% of the applicable federal poverty guideline and they have no more than $2,000 in assets (or $3,000 for households with seniors). These are the rules D.C. has been using.

They obviously exclude numerous people who need food stamps. For starters, recall that 130% of the federal poverty guideline for a family of three is just $23,803–only about 46% of what the Fair Budget Coalition has estimated as basic expenses for a D.C. parent with two children.

Note too that the asset limit requires families with even quite small “rainy day” funds to spend down their savings or go without sufficient nutritious food–a choice no one should have to make.

However, the standard rules don’t apply to families that receive cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. The simple fact of participating in these programs is enough to qualify for food stamps. Hence the term “categorical eligibility.”

States are allowed to expand their definitions of “categorical eligibility” to include any household that receives a TANF-funded service. In the case of D.C., this will be a TANF-funded brochure on available job training services. Anyone who applies for food stamps will get this brochure. And, presto, they’ll automatically become eligible if their income is at or below 200% of the relevant federal poverty guideline.

This policy change is a real win/win. Most importantly, it will allow many more D.C. residents, including recently laid-off workers, to receive the nutrition assistance they need–and without having to spend down their savings.

Second, the children of these new food stamp recipients will be automatically enrolled in the free school meal program. This will help ensure they are adequate nourished and, at the same time, stretch the family’s budget.

Lastly but not leastly, the policy change will maximize the potential impact of the food stamp boost in the federal economic stimulus package. Judging from the opinions of many economists, we should expect a lot of bang for the bucks. And getting them will cost the District virtually nothing.

So kudos to Councilmember Brown for taking the lead on this issue and to his fellow Councilmembers, who have all signed on to the legislation. They will need to make sure that their directives are implemented as quickly as possible. But I understand the agencies have said they are ready and willing.


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