The Senate passed the bill to reauthorize agriculture and nutrition programs (S. 3240) on June 21. Anti-hunger advocates succeeded in beating back amendments to make drastic cuts or structural changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). But they were unsuccessful in efforts to restore a $4.5 billion SNAP cut in the bill sent to the floor by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
As reported in the June 19 Human Needs Report, the full Senate took up the farm bill after an agreement to consider 73 amendments on the floor. Before this agreement, the Senate had separately considered and rejected an extreme proposal by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to block-grant and slash SNAP/food stamps. That failed on a bipartisan basis, with 65 senators agreeing to table the amendment.
Advocates had strongly backed an amendment by Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), which would have restored the $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts made in committee. But Agriculture Committee Chair Stabenow (D-MI) worked hard to persuade her colleagues that rejecting this cut would place the deal around the entire bill at risk. In the end, the amendment failed 33-66. If the cut remains in the final farm bill, 500,000 SNAP households will lose $90 a month in benefits because states will no longer be allowed to coordinate benefits of SNAP and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Because LIHEAP funding is very limited, only about 20 percent of the eligible population receives home heating or cooling assistance, and those households receive very little. The provision prohibited in the Senate bill makes it possible for households getting very little in LIHEAP funds to receive higher SNAP benefits based on a reasonable estimate of their shelter costs (which include home energy). It was disappointing to advocates that the Senate was willing to cut SNAP benefits. The House is expected to do worse, and if the farm bill ever gets to the point of being negotiated by a Senate-House conference committee, SNAP (and its millions of households in need) will be more vulnerable as a result.
But while the Gillibrand amendment did not succeed, neither did efforts to cut SNAP further. There were several amendments to eliminate payments to states that serve as incentives for improving the administration of SNAP. A Sessions amendment (S.A. 2172) would have eliminated these incentive payments altogether; it failed 41-58, with all Democrats joined by Republican Senators Brown (MA), Collins (ME), Heller (NV), Murkowski (AK), and Snowe (ME) in rejecting this cut. Another amendment (S.A. 2360) to eliminate these state bonuses was introduced by Senator Boozman (R-AR). While permanently eliminating the incentive payments to states, it would have redirected $43 million for only one year to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Feeding America, the organization which supplies emergency food to food banks across the U.S., opposed this amendment, even though they badly need an increase in TEFAP funds. They recognized, however, that the permanent loss of funds that encourage better SNAP performance by states would hurt the same hungry families they are trying to serve – far too high a price to pay. The amendment failed 35-63, with a dozen Republicans joining all Democrats in opposing.
An amendment aimed at cutting down the number of households qualifying for SNAP was introduced by Senator Sessions (R-AL). It would have restricted the ability of states to determine households eligible for SNAP if they receive any form of assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Some low-income families with children do not receive TANF cash benefits, but do receive in-kind help with child care or transportation. Now, some states determine households as eligible for SNAP if they receive such benefits without having to submit eligibility documentation all over again. The Sessions amendment (S.A. 2174) would only allow this form of “categorical eligibility” if TANF recipients were getting cash assistance, resulting in an estimated 2-3 million low-income people losing SNAP benefits. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 280,000 children would lose free school lunch benefits, because children losing SNAP benefits would no longer be automatically deemed eligible for free school lunches. This amendment failed 43-56, with Republican Senators Brown, Collins, Heller, and Snowe joining all Democrats in opposition.
The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to take up its version of the farm bill on July 11. It is expected to cut $16.5 billion from the nutrition title, all from SNAP. In addition to the Senate’s Heat and Eat cut, the House bill would restrict categorical eligibility only to TANF recipients with cash assistance, as in the Sessions amendment described above. This would cut more than $11 billion over 10 years. It would also repeat the failed Senate proposals to end performance bonuses (a cut of $480 billion over ten years to states).
Many observers do not believe Congress will manage to agree on a final farm bill before the end of this year. Whether or not work on the farm bill can be completed, anti-hunger advocates will work hard to let House members know that SNAP cuts affecting millions of people as expected in the House Agriculture Committee bill are unacceptable.