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Food stamp battle comes to House floor this week

4:16 PM, Sep 17, 2013   |    comments
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By Paul Singer, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - House Republicans plan a vote this week on a bill that would save billions of dollars by taking away food stamps from millions of poor Americans.

Or, viewed another way, Republicans are pushing legislation to restore the eligibility requirements of the food stamp program and end a dramatic expansion in the number of people dependent on government.

The cost of the federal food stamp program has exploded over the past decade. According to the Department of Agriculture. In 2001, the program served 17 million people at a cost of just over $15 billion. By 2012, there were 46 million people enrolled in the program at a cost of a little under $75 billion. Democrats say the program has grown because the economy tanked; Republicans argue much of the expansion is attributed to states giving benefits to people who do not qualify.

As part of the reauthorization of the farm bill, the House Agriculture Committee approved $20 billion in cuts to food stamps - officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - over 10 years. But the bill did not only cut the budget. It also revised the rules for how states enroll people into the program, closing what Republicans call loopholes that allowed states to grant food stamps to people who would not normally qualify. Most significantly, the bill would significantly curtail the use of "categorical eligibility," a process by which state agencies would grant SNAP benefits to individuals who qualified for other state assistance programs.

States argue that categorical eligibility is simply an efficiency tool. If a person has already filled out paperwork to qualify for heating assistance or other income-based program, why fill out the same paperwork a second time to determine your eligibility for food stamps? In May, the National Conference of State Legislatures wrote to Congress to warn, "This limitation in categorical eligibility would increase state administrative costs in SNAP and significantly curtail state flexibility. This proposal would require states to redetermine eligibility for SNAP," which would create a costly new burden for state agencies.

But Majority Leader Eric Cantor told lawmakers last week he intends to have the House vote on a bill that includes the categorical eligibility change - which a briefing paper from his office said "would result in 1.8 million individuals no longer qualifying for SNAP benefits."

In addition, Cantor said, the measure doubles SNAP savings - to $40 billion over 10 years - by allowing states to require that able-bodied food stamp recipients spend 20 hours a week in either a job or job training. Under these rules, fewer people would qualify for benefits, and states would be given 50% of the money they save in SNAP to use for any purpose.

"House Republicans are working to restore the integrity of this safety-net program and protect it for those who need it most," Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said. "By encouraging people to engage in job training or workfare we can help those in the program build the skills and gain the experience they need to become self-sufficient in the future."

Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at Heritage Foundation, said, "Welfare should be based on the concept of self-sufficiency," which she called a widely popular view. "The majority of American agree there should be a safety net," Sheffield said, but at the same time, "the majority of Americans also believe that people in need should do what they can" to help themselves. Government aid should be a last resort.

Cantor's briefing paper makes the point that "loopholes in the law have allowed people to enroll even though their income exceeds the normal threshold."

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said, "There are these myths out there that don't reflect reality ... that there are people who just take advantage of food stamps using it as excuse to not get a job." That perception "is just wrong. It is a lie," McGovern said. Food stamps are "a very modest benefit" - under $200 per month, on average -- and "most of the people on this program are senior citizens or children."

The House bill would also eliminate federally funded outreach to people who are eligible for food stamps but not receiving them and a bonus program for states that are most efficient in enrolling people into the program. USDA estimates that about 25% of people eligible for food stamps do not receive them, a number that is much larger among senior citizens.

McGovern says outreach should be encouraged, not cut. "States trying to be creative in terms of getting more people enrolled -- that's a good thing not only because it helps stimulate the economy, but because it helps people eat," he said.

"These cuts to SNAP are just a rotten thing to do," McGovern said. "The people who are going to be hurt are the people who are poor."

Advocates for the poor fear the cuts would create a wave of demand at food banks and other private charities that would have to pick up the slack for feeding people.

Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank in St. Paul, Minn., provides food to about 1,000 soup kitchens, food shelves and other providers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. If the SNAP cuts go into effect, "We will see more neighbors more deeply in poverty and more deeply in need of our services," said Rob Zeaske, CEO of Second Harvest.

Zeaske said the projected savings wouldn't materialize because missed meals lead to poorer health for seniors, worse academic performance for children and other costly societal problems. "We're just adding to the bill we all have to pay for a lack of food security," he said.

In California, the food stamp cuts could scale back a program that is already missing millions of Americans.

This year, California's $8 billion food stamp program will feed about 4 million people. However, the state program has the lowest participation of eligible residents - only 55% - according to the latest figures from the Department of Agriculture, collected in 2010. The state has spent about $32 million in federal money over the past three years to increase participation, and the California Department of Social Services is expected to enroll 59,000 households during fiscal 2014.

Caroline Danielson, a social safety net expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, said "we are not talking about enrolling people who aren't eligible for the program. We are talking about enrolling people who are eligible. That said, on the other side of the equation, you could say you don't want everyone who is eligible to be eligible."

In Florida, Rebecca Brislain, who heads the Florida Association of Food Banks, a non-profit association serving 3.5 million Floridians yearly, said if Congress makes steep cuts in SNAP, "We don't have the resources to fill that gap. We've already increased our (food collections) from 72 million pounds to 170 million pounds in the past four years. And that's with SNAP."

Contributing: Kirsti Marohn and Caitlin Yilek, St. Cloud, Minn. Times; Brett Kelman, The Desert Sun; Laura Ruane, Fort Myers News Press and Trevor Hughes, The Coloradan

USA TODAY

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