Much has been written of late about the political and systemic ills that are plaguing the Senate. Most of the griping has come from Democrats who see good bills die or get woefully compromised.
But the Senate recently passed two otherwise good bills with very bad offsets that can’t be blamed on the Republican opposition.
In both cases, the offset reduces the duration of the 13.6% increase in food stamp benefits that was part of the economic recovery act.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, a family of four will stand to lose $59 per month. This at a time when more than 40.8 million people depend on food stamps to stave off hunger.
One of the bills — an amendment actually — is basically the surviving fragments of what began as a fairly robust jobs bill. It will, at long last, extend the higher federal match on state Medicaid costs (FMAP), though in a cost-cutting phased-down form rather than a straightforward extension. The amendment will also provide local education agencies with funds to minimize further teacher layoffs.
Total cost is estimated at $26.1 billion. About 45% of this is “paid for” by terminating the food stamp benefit boost in April 2014. Left alone, it would probably have ended, with no benefits loss, in 2018.
This is the single largest component of the pay-for — increased from $6.7 to $11.9 billion in part because some Senators objected to parts of the pay-for that would have kept multinational corporations from shielding foreign-earned income from U.S. taxes.
So instead an estimated 319,000 public-sector jobs are temporarily saved by sacrificing the stimulus measure that delivers the biggest economic bang for the buck. Some Democrats in the House didn’t like it, but they voted for it anyway. So it’s a done deal now and unlikely to be undone.
The other bill will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. As I earlier wrote, it will do some very good, if limited things to reduce child hunger and improve child health — the latter mainly by paving the way for more balanced food offerings in schools, daycare centers and after-school programs.
Total price tag $4.5 billion over 10 years. Nearly half — $2.2 billion — paid for by cutting an additional five months off the food stamp benefit increase. This is apparently a substitute for the Senate Agriculture Committee’s plan to tap a program that provides agricultural producers with financial support for their efforts to comply with environmental regulations.
“Highly and widely popular with farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners,” said five of the Republican committee members who objected to the environment incentives pay-for. Those interests obviously have more clout than the poor people who rely on food stamps — and, at least on the Senate side, the organizations that advocate for them.
The White House has thus far been cagily neutral. Michelle Obama, its spokesperson for the legislation,” said that “the Senate vote moves us one step closer to reaching [the] goal” of ending child obesity. Nothing about the pay-for.
Congressman David Obey (D-WI), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says that the idea of cutting food stamp benefits to pay for the local school aid originated in the White House. Not a hopeful sign for its intervention to prevent a double whammy.
Congressman George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee that drafted the House bill reeauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, is keeping his cards close to his chest. Publicly, he too just refers to the “important step” the Senate took and the bipartisan leadership behind it.
As might be expected, FRAC has launched a campaign against cutting food stamp benefits to fund other priorities. The Senate’s child nutrition bill, it rightly says, “will make children hungrier.”
It’s got a sign-on letter, endorsed by more than 1,400 organizations, that I assume will be revised to focus on the House.
The School Nutrition Association, which, of course, welcomes the prospective funding increase for healthier school meals, also urges the House to find a different offset. “In the effort to raise ‘Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids’ [the promise in the title of the Senate bill] we don’t want to risk compromising their dinner to improve their lunch.”
This, of course, assumes that poor parents will still be able to afford dinners. We know that, in the past, families regularly ran out of food stamps before the end of the month. We know that the current Child Nutrition Act falls far short of ensuring that poor children get three squares a day every day. Neither of the reauthorizing bills will come close.
And since when have we decided that only child hunger matters? According to FRAC’s letter, nearly half of all food stamp recipients are children. That leaves at least 20.8 million who aren’t.
Some of them are disabled people dependent on Supplemental Social Security. This year’s maximum monthly benefit for an individual is $674. Some are retired workers, about a quarter of whom depend solely on Social Security. Average monthly retirement benefit is just under $1,170.
These are people for whom every penny matters — as indeed it does for everyone in the nearly 90% of food stamp households whose incomes are below the federal poverty line.
Do we throw these people, children included, under the bus because it’s an easy way to pay for some of the long-overdue improvements in the child nutrition program?