SNAP Cut Bad, But Defeat of Farm Bill Would Have Risked Much Worse

February 5, 2014

Last Friday, the House passed the new Farm Bill that conferees had lengthily negotiated. Most Democrats voted against it. The Senate passed the bill yesterday, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans voting in favor. The White House has said the President will sign it.

So it’s a done deal. Some agricultural interests, e.g., rice and peanut farmers, are celebrating. Virtually no one else, I think, is altogether happy — and certainly not those of us who advocate for strong safety net programs.

Some anti-hunger advocates had urged Congress members to defeat the bill because, as I’m sure you know, it includes a cut in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

But in this case, I think a victory could well have paved the way for a more devastating defeat. So I’m disappointed, but at the same time relieved.

What If the Farm Bill Hadn’t Passed?

The cut amounts to $8.6 billion over 10 years. It’s achieved by establishing a new restriction on a provision commonly known as “heat and eat.” An estimated 850,000 households — 1.7 million people — will lose, on average, $90 a month in SNAP benefits.

Like other advocates, I’d have much preferred a Farm Bill that increased SNAP benefits, which were too low even before earlier decisions by Congress resulted in benefits losses last November.

But the Farm Bill could have been far, far worse, as the standalone nutrition part the House passed shows. It would have reduced SNAP funding by at least $39 billion over 10 years. Some  3.8 million people would have lost their benefits entirely.

And the House bill included some other truly pernicious provisions, including an incentive for states to deny SNAP benefits to as many low-income jobless adults as possible. Their children also.

These provisions are all gone, with one limited exception. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives the details, plus a section-by-section summary of the whole nutrition part of the bill.

What would we have seen next year if majorities in the House and Senate had rejected the Farm Bill? I wouldn’t have wanted to chance it, given the iffy prospects for continuing Democratic control of the Senate.

This is why I concur with the bottom line reached by CBPP President Robert Greenstein.

He too would like to have seen higher SNAP benefits and/or other changes that would raise them for households with extremely high housing costs, but believes the compromise is the best we were likely to get.

Even if Republicans don’t gain a majority in the Senate, the “heat and eat” restriction could have worked its way into an annual appropriations bill if the Farm Bill hadn’t been reauthorized — or perhaps imposed through regulation.

As Greenstein says, the provision would have been tightened sooner or later because it “won’t withstand public scrutiny.”

What Is This “Heat and Eat” Business Anyway?

As I’ve written before, the “heat and eat” provision allows states to apply a standard utility allowance, i.e., an assumed cost for basic utilities, when they calculate a household’s shelter costs if the household received a benefit from the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program.

In some cases, this results in a larger SNAP benefit than households would otherwise receive because it boost their shelter costs over 50% of their income.

The provision was originally intended to simplify administration, since receipt of a LIHEAP benefit clearly indicated that a household was paying — or trying to pay — its utility bills, rather than paying them as a portion of its rent and that it just as clearly was struggling with “excess shelter costs.”

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of the “heat and eat” option. They provide a minimal LIHEAP benefit — a rock-bottom 10 cents in California — to maximize the SNAP benefits their residents qualify for, including those whose utility costs are folded into their rent.

One would be hard put, I think, to deny that they’re exploiting a loophole, though for the best of reasons. Utility costs are often high, whether paid directly or indirectly. And LIHEAP funding doesn’t enable states to help all who need it — fewer indeed than it used to.

So some SNAP households really do have to choose between heating and eating. More generally, as I’ve already said, SNAP benefits are too low — even at the maximum levels.

Congress nevertheless intended the “heat and eat” provision to reduce paperwork burdens, not give states a way to boost benefits.

The new Farm Bill doesn’t do away with the provision altogether. But it does close the loophole. States can still apply the SUA based on a LIHEAP benefit, but only for households that receive at least $20 a year — the threshold in the original House bill.

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. I believe this was the best possible outcome, given what House Republicans had put on the table — and what might well have become law if the Farm Bill had gone back to the drawing board.

A sad conclusion nonetheless.


Benefits Boost for DC TANF Families Would Halt Value Loss, But Not Give Them Enough for Basic Needs

September 3, 2013

Here’s a modest, overdue reform that may finally get some legislative action — an increase in the extraordinarily low cash benefits for families in the District of Columbia’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program.

A bill introduced by DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and Marion Barry would give the benefits an initial boost and then keep them from losing value due to inflation, as they do now.

The initial boost would be small — 15%, plus whatever the CPI-U (the consumer price index most commonly used for inflation adjustments) indicates the cost-of-living increase for the first year should be. The same COLA would then apply in following years.

Benefits haven’t been increased for five years now. And earlier increases weren’t enough to keep them at the same already-low level below the federal poverty line.

So even families whose benefits haven’t been deliberately cut have less, in real dollars, than they would have had in 1990, the year before COLAs were eliminated.

If the COLA had been consistently in force, a family of three would be eligible for a maximum of about $731 a month, instead of $428, assuming no other increases during the last 13 years.

This would put the family at about 45% of the federal poverty line. It’s instead at 26.3%, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s graph of the downward slide shows.

The Graham-Barry bill wouldn’t make up for the full purchasing power lost. DCFPI estimates the maximum for the family of three at $492 a month — presumably if the bill were swiftly passed and signed. Which it probably won’t be.

What will happen almost immediately is a benefits cut for families who’ve participated in TANF for more than five years. Those who were over this lifetime limit the Council agreed to in late 2010 will get a second cut in October.

A family of three will then receive, at most, $257 a month — unless it belongs to one of the groups for whom the time limit will be suspended.

TANF benefits are already absurdly low, even for families still under the time limit. Consider, for example, that the rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment would cost our three-person family more than three times its entire maximum benefit.

Well, that apartment’s obviously not in the family’s budget. And I doubt it will be.

The DC Department of Human Services seems to believe otherwise, since it’s still banking heavily on rapid re-housing to solve the family homelessness crisis — and more specifically, to get families out of (or keep them out of) the DC General shelter.

Most of them are in the TANF program — or assumed eligible. They’re likely to have, at most, a year of subsidized housing before they have to pick up the full costs of rent.

Possible for those who’ve suffered a temporary setback. Unlikely, I think. for the many headed by parents who have significant barriers to employment — let alone employment at a wage that would make an apartment affordable.

For that, the parent of our three-person TANF family would have to land a job paying $56,760 next year — more than three times the local minimum wage.

Meanwhile, all TANF families — and many D.C. residents who aren’t in the program — will lose a portion of their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in November because of decisions Congress has already made.

Roughly 144,000 residents — 22% of the District’s population — will have to stretch their very low benefits even further, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The loss for our family of three will be $29 a month — or about 45% of the increase it would get under the Graham-Barry bill.

In short, the proposal is certainly better than letting the District’s TANF benefits slide further and further below what families need for basic living costs.

But it won’t give them even the support they had when the program was created. They’ll still, in many cases, be in what DCFPI policy analyst Kate Coventry terms “a state of constant crisis.”

“Very difficult for parents to fully focus on job preparation activities” in such circumstances, she adds.

Even a considerably larger TANF boost would still leave them at high risk of homelessness — if they’re not homeless already — because a big part of that “constant crisis” is the woeful shortage of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income families here.

Also the woeful shortage of long-term housing vouchers that would make more housing affordable.

The Graham-Barry bill would still, as I said, be a step in the right direction. I’d like to see a bigger step when/if the Council decides to act on it.

But obviously the problems facing poor families in the District (and elsewhere) are bigger than any one policy change can resolve.

New Food Stamp Cuts on the Horizon Again

May 20, 2013

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 has estimated that 1.8 million fewer low-income people would receive food stamp benefits. The Office of Management and Budget put the figure at 3 million.

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.

Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.

Brief Bits on Taxes and Entitlements

July 12, 2012

Like other bloggers of my kind, I spend a lot of time following issues I’ve seized on, while also dipping into others that look like my cup of tea.

I also try to exercise a certain amount of discipline about how much I pack into a post. So draft paragraphs fall on the cutting floor. And sometimes a new angle occurs to me after I’ve said, “enough already.”

All this certainly gives my mind a workout. But it’s also frustrating in a couple of ways.

On the one hand, I find new research on things I’ve already written about — not enough for a whole post, but meaty and relevant enough so I wish I’d found it before.

On the other hand, I identify issues that spark my interest. But I know I’ll have to spend considerable time learning about them before I’ll feel comfortable framing a post.

So I’m going to try an experiment — occasional posts that are more or less a scrapbook of supplements to posts I’ve written and first cuts into topics that are in my mental file.

Not a massive data dump. Just a selection of fragments of squirreled away, plus an occasional instance of what the French call l’esprit d’escalier (the smart thing you think of as you’re walking back down the stairs.)

This is the first of such posts. I hope you’ll let me know whether you’d like more.

Bush Tax Cuts: GOP v. Obama

Congressional Republicans and the President agree that the Bush tax cuts for households with incomes at or below $250,000 should be extended. As you undoubtedly know, the Republicans want the tax cuts for high-income families extended too.

Among these is the current version of the estate tax — a whopping $10 million exemption for couples, plus lower rates on the rest. The President wants to extend it, but exempt a mere $7 million.

Don’t think Republicans are all for lower taxes, however. Unlike the President, they don’t want to extend the expanded versions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that were originally part of the Recovery Act. Both of these benefit low and moderate-income working families.

A new brief from Citizens for Tax Justice shows the contrasting results. Needless to say, very high-earners would do far better under the Republican approach. All but the top 5% would do worse.

Disparities increase as you move down the income scale. The bottom fifth would pay $150 more next year if the Republicans have their way.

CTJ provides similar state-level breakdowns for average tax cuts residents would receive.

Here in the District of Columbia, the bottom fifth would pay $120 more under the Republican approach. Only the top 20% would do better.

The top 1% would do a whole lot better — tax breaks totaling an average of $116,850 more than under the President’s plan.

Another Thought on the Millionaire Threshold

As those who follow this blog know, I’m not on board with making most of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as both Congressional Republicans and the President have said they want to.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney as well, of course, but with some extra sweeteners for high-earners and some bitter pills for low-wage workers who are barely getting by.

Raising the “middle class” threshold to $1 million, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi proposed, would make things worse. I’ve already given some of the reasons I think so. Here’s another — not tactical like Pelosi’s recent retreat.

The millionaire threshold reinforces the notion that only the wealthy should have to pay higher taxes than they do now. To borrow from former Senator Russell Long, “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the rich fellow behind the tree.”

Yet in the long run we’ll need more tax revenues — both to curb our rising debt and, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes, to invest more in areas crucial for economic growth, e.g., education, infrastructure, research and development.

We can’t look only to millionaires and to large corporations — another favorite villain these days. As Adam Davidson at NPR Planet Money has argued, the middle class will have to pay more too.

Some People’s Entitlements Are Better Than Others

Hardly a day goes by without some public pronouncement about costly entitlements. I’ve yet to see calls for curbs on the food stamp program, Social Security and/or Medicare also mention farm subsidies.

Yet they’re entitlements too. Mainly benefits to large farm businesses — and people who own farm land but don’t grow anything on it.

Both the Senate’s new Farm bill and the House Agriculture Committee’s version would eliminate automatic cash payments to farmers (and non-farmers). But they would expand insurance against lower profits.

Farmers who grow certain commodities, e.g., corn, wheat, would be guaranteed 85-90% of their previous five-year returns — unless, in the House version, they’d rather get another layer of protection against steep, multi-year declines.

What other type of business gets taxpayer-funded underwriting against market price drops? What makes this affordable, but not funding to preserve food stamp benefits for low-income people who depend on them now?

House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Is That Bad

July 9, 2012

The draft Farm Bill the House Agriculture Committee co-chairs released last week makes the Senate’s $4.5 billion cut in the food stamp program look like a nick.

The bill would reduce food stamp spending by about $16 billion over the same 10-year period — more than 45% of the estimated total saved.

By far and away the biggest bite — about $11.5 billion — comes from a “common-sense” reform that was among the crippling amendments the Senate defeated.

This so-called reform does away with what’s called broad-based categorical eligibility — an option that 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted to extend food stamp benefits to more people in need.

With this option, households automatically qualify for food stamps if they receive a benefit funded by the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — so long as their gross income is at or below a threshold the state chooses.

Federal law says it can’t be higher than 200% of the federal poverty line — currently $3,182 a month for a family of three. Most states, however, set the threshold lower.

The option doesn’t only allow households with somewhat higher incomes to participate. It also exempts them from the program’s regular assets test — if states decide to go this route. Not all states with categorical eligibility have.

The assets test is a separate part of the standard eligibility assessment. It disqualifies households if they have more than $2,000 in liquid assets, e.g., money in the bank — or $3,250 if a member is elderly or disabled.

The test also screens out households that have a car worth more than $4,650, even if they owe some port of it to the finance company. An exception if the car is used to earn income, e.g., as a taxi, but not if the breadwinner needs it to get to work.

The co-chairs draft wouldn’t just wipe out broad-based categorical eligibility. It would also nullify a modified form some states have adopted.

Households would automatically qualify for food stamps only if they receive cash assistance from TANF, the federal Supplemental Social Security Income program or a state’s general assistance program.

These are, by and large, households with incomes way below the poverty line.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observes, households with gross incomes above the regular 130% food stamp cut-off often have disposable incomes, i.e., money they can spend on things like food, that fall below the line after deductions for costs they must pay in order to work — notably child care.

No matter. The co-chairs see a “loophole” to close — or maybe just a way to get to their savings target while still preserving generous farm subsidies.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The Committee earlier offered the same savings as part of its contribution to the House budget reconciliation bill, i.e., the Republican majority’s alternative to the across-the-board cuts that are still on the horizon.

What’s noteworthy, however, is that Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) reportedly wanted to replace categorical eligibility with a higher income cut-off and asset maximum than the current law establishes, plus an exclusion for one car.

But his Tea Party-type colleagues would have none of it. So the Committee will instead vote on — and almost surely pass — a measure that excludes even more people from the food stamp program than the Lucas proposal would have.

We don’t yet have a fix on how many people would lose their benefits.

When the Committee proposed the same provision for the budget reconciliation bill, the Congressional Budget Office estimated an average of 1.8 million a year.

The Office of Management and Budget put the figure at more than 3 million in 2013 — about two-thirds of them in households where at least one adult works.

We have a window of opportunity to save these folks from having to choose between eating and earning — or in  the case of the elderly, between eating and spending down money they’ve put aside for expected costs like medical co-pays.

Some are saying the House may not vote on a Farm Bill at all — at least not before the current law expires at the end of September.

If it does, the Senate’s Democratic majority will almost surely balk at the food stamp cut, as well as some other provisionse.g., its extraneous attack on environmental regulations.

So like as not, we’ll have one of those kick-the-can-down-the-road extensions.

But that may be a short-term reprieve for low-income families who’ve had the prudence to save for a rainy day — or a car that’s not a 10 year old clunker.

Senate Passes Major Bipartisan Bill With Harmful Food Stamp Cut

June 22, 2012

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.