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.
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.
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.
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.