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 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.