The Senate has achieved a modern-day miracle. It has passed a second major piece of legislation — and on a bipartisan basis too.
The legislation is the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, i.e., the Farm Bill. It’s the source of, among other things, a variety of subsidies for farm businesses and of the policies that govern SNAP (the food stamp program).
Like all such federal laws, it’s supposed to be reauthorized every five years. This year is one of them.
Anti-hunger advocates are not happy because the Senate bill changes a provision commonly known as “heat and eat,” which states have used to boost food stamp benefits.
The provision allows states to use their maximum standard utility allowance when they deduct allowable costs from income if the household receives a LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit.
The maximum SUA can make households
eligible for food stamps and/or make them eligible for higher benefits than their actual out-of-pocket energy costs would.
It works this way because they qualify for a higher deduction when their shelter costs reach 50% of their income, less other deductions. This so-called excess shelter deduction is capped for most households, but not for those with an elderly or disabled family member.
The benefits boost seems to be what Congress intended, i.e., to keep low-income households from having to choose between staying warm and having enough food on the table.
What apparently got some members of the Senate Agriculture Committee upset is that a number of states have been giving applicants a token LIHEAP benefit — sometimes, as in the District of Columbia, a $1 a year.
How many states do this is unclear. Committee Chair Debby Stabenow (D-MI) says 16 states do.
A recent Congressional Research Service memo says that a preliminary survey indicates that 14 states and the District have implemented or will soon implement “heat and eat.”
In any event, the Committee decided that states are exploiting a loophole which ought to be closed. Or perhaps it just saw a good opportunity to save an estimated $4.5 billion by 2022.
So the bill it produced would restrict the “heat and eat” option to cases where the annual LIHEAP benefit is at least $10 a year.
The House budget reconciliation bill, i.e., the Republican majority’s alternative to sequestration, would blow away “heat and eat” altogether, saving close to $14 billion over the same 10-year time period.
One can see, I think, why some members of Congress could decide that the provision, as written, allows states to “game the system,” as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) claims.
But — and it’s a big but — eliminating “heat and eat,” as House Republicans want, would reduce benefits for 1.3 million households, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Nearly 500,000 households would get lower benefits under the less radical change in the Senate’s Farm Bill.
In both cases, the average per household benefits loss would be $90 a month — this on top of the 10% or so benefits loss already enacted.
Low-income seniors and people with disabilities would be hardest hit because of the uncapped shelter cost deduction I mentioned.
The Food Research and Action Center warns that some could be left with only the minimum food stamp benefit — a pathetic $16 a month.
What’s so upsetting about this latest raid on the food stamp program is that benefits are already well below what most families need for a healthful diet. We’ve got ample evidence of this, including:
- Reports on individuals’ experiences with the Food Stamp Challenge — even some from members of Congress.
- Local studies showing how far benefits fall short of covering the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest food plan.
- USDA’s latest food security survey, which found that 52% of households that received food stamps year round didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.”
States have adopted “heat and eat” in part because they recognize the benefits problem. Also because food stamps deliver a great “bang for the buck” to their economies — thus create and preserve those jobs we need so badly now.
The Senate could have done the same, but chose not to when it defeated, also on a bipartisan basis, an amendment that would have kept “heat and eat” intact.
Now the $4.5 billion saved becomes the starting point for negotiations with the House.
The Republican majority there has already passed vastly larger food stamp cuts. So it’s unlikely to settle for even its own “heat and eat” savings.