Once every five years, Congress passes legislation that sets federal policy on forestry, conservation, nutrition and agriculture, called the “farm bill.” Passed in 2008, the latest farm bill expired in 2012 but was partially extended on January 1, 2013.
With this extension (PL 112-24) expiring on September 30, Congress is deeply enmeshed in work on the new farm bill. Both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have approved legislation, and now the Senate bill (S. 954) has been taken up on the Senate floor. Most disturbing to nutrition advocates is the fact that both bills cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) substantially, meaning added hardship for low-income people, including families, the elderly, and people with disabilities, who rely on nutrition assistance to get by.
The Farm Bill in the Senate
The full Senate took up the farm bill in the week before the Memorial Day recess, and voted on many of the nearly 200 amendments filed. They were unable to complete their work but hope to wrap up consideration of the bill in the week after they return, starting June 3.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 (S. 954), includes a $4.1 billion cut to SNAP over ten years. While a smaller cut than the one proposed in the House plan, the cut would restrict the coordination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) with SNAP. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have opted to provide SNAP households with a nominal LIHEAP payment, so that instead of having to provide burdensome monthly documentation of their shelter and heating/utility bills, they can deduct a standard allowance from their income, thereby increasing the amount of SNAP benefits they qualify for. This “Heat and Eat” approach disproportionately helps seniors and those with disabilities, who pay a high proportion of their income on shelter costs. Without this coordinated approach, such households may lose $50 – $75 a month in SNAP benefits. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D –NY) spearheaded a failed effort to eliminate the cuts (see below).
SNAP-related Amendments to the Senate Farm Bill
The Senate rejected a number of amendments before the Memorial Day recess that attempted to make SNAP cuts as bad or worse as those in the House Agriculture Committee’s bill (see House bill description below).
Roberts Amendment (#948): This would have increased the cut to SNAP from $4.1 billion to more than $30 billion. It was defeated by a vote of 40 to 58.
Inhofe Amendment (#960): This amendment would have converted SNAP into a block grant, similar to the extreme proposal in the House-passed Budget Resolution. The amendment was defeated 36 to 60.
Vitter Amendment (#1056): The Vitter Amendment bans for life convicted pedophiles, sex offenders and murderers from receiving SNAP benefits. It also requires SNAP applicants to submit a written statement of whether any member of the household has been convicted of any of these crimes. If a household member has been convicted of any of these offenses, even decades before, his or her income counts in determining the family’s eligibility for SNAP, but the family’s total benefit will be reduced. The amendment passed by unanimous consent. Although constructed to exclude the most unpopular individuals, the amendment’s likely victims include children and other family members, as the household’s total food budget is reduced. Asking applicants for a written statement about each household member could also have a chilling effect, deterring some families from completing an application despite need.
Franken/Blunt Amendment (#992): This amendment improves the bill by allowing homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities to use their SNAP benefits for home-delivery services, as long as the home-delivery service includes no additional costs over in-store service. This language is also included in the House farm bill and therefore should make it into the final bill. The amendment was approved by unanimous consent.
Gillibrand Amendment (#931): The Gillibrand Amendment would have dropped the $4.1 billion SNAP cut in the bill, replacing the lost savings by making cuts to crop insurance. The amendment was defeated, 26 to 70.
Many amendments to cut SNAP remain to be considered. Among them are a Johanns Amendment (#1070), which limits categorical eligibility (“Cat-El”), in which families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) become eligible for SNAP as well; a Roberts Amendment (#949) that restricts the coordination of SNAP and LIHEAP well beyond the approach now in the Senate bill, and a Thune Amendment (#991) which cuts funds for SNAP nutrition education and obesity prevention.
The Farm Bill in the House
The House Agriculture Committee backed a five-year farm bill (H.R. 1947) that slashes $20.5 billion from SNAP over ten years. This cut is even deeper than last year’s House version, which cut $16.5 billion from SNAP. The total savings from the proposed House farm bill equals $39.7 billion, with over half coming from SNAP.
The bill passed out of Committee on a 30-10 vote, with 13 Democrats and all Republicans in favor. An amendment by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) to eliminate the $20.5 billion SNAP cut in the bill failed by a vote of 17-27. All committee Republicans voted against it, as well as three Democrats: Ranking Member Collin Peterson (MN), Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (NY) and Representative Mike McIntyre (NC).
Nutrition advocates and most House Democrats are firmly set against H.R. 1947, however, motivated by the belief that nutrition benefits should be upheld for America’s low-income people.
Sixty percent of the $20.5 billion cut to SNAP would come from ending categorical eligibility as an option for states.; If the House bill were to become law, 2 million people would lose SNAP benefits and 280,000 children would lose access to free school meals because states would be unable to align their TANF and SNAP eligibility requirements. Low-income working families would be especially hard-hit by this cut. Additionally, these reductions come on top of the across-the-board reduction that every SNAP recipient will have to endure starting in November 2013, when the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s short-term SNAP boost expires. For a family of three, this loss will likely mean $20-$25 less a month for a family of three, making the average benefit only $1.40 per person per meal. See more here from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
As in the Senate, the Heat and Eat cut included in the House bill is very troubling for nutrition advocates. The House bill is harsher, creating a steeper requirement for maintaining Heat and Eat eligibility, mandating that households must receive at least $20 in LIHEAP funding in order to qualify for the standard deduction for shelter/utilities. About 850,000 low-income households, a total of about 1.7 million individuals, would lose an average of $90 a month in SNAP benefits as a result of this House Agriculture Committee provision.
The House bill does include some reinvestments, including:
- $217 million to TEFAP (emergency food) (in comparison to $250 last year)
- Community Food Projects are level-funded at $100 million
- $50 million is afforded for SNAP retailer trafficking prevention
The House will likely bring its bill to the floor in June – thus allowing the House and Senate to start conferencing the bill over the Independence Day recess. However, the House bill is opposed by some on the right and the left; it is not clear yet whether there are enough votes to enact it. For nutrition advocates, failure to pass a bill with such extreme SNAP cuts would be good news.