CHN: Advocates’ All-Out Effort to Stop Deep Cuts to SNAP Falls Short

On September 19, the House narrowly passed (217-210) a whopping nearly $40 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Democrats were joined by 15 Republicans [Capito (WV), Fitzpatrick (PA), Fortenberry (NE), Gibson (NY), Grimm (NY), Hanna (NY), Jones (NC), King (NY), LoBiondo (NJ), Meehan (PA), Garry Miller (CA), Smith (NJ), Valadao (CA), Wolf (VA), and Young (AK)] in opposing the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 (H.R. 3102).  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would result in 3.8 million people being removed from SNAP in 2014.  At risk of losing SNAP are low-income working families, children, seniors, and unemployed childless adults.
According to the 1996 welfare law, adults aged 18 to 50 who are not disabled or caring for minor children are limited to 3 months of SNAP benefits every three years unless they are working 20 hours per week or are in a job training program. With unemployment remaining high, 44 states sought and received waivers on those limits in 2013.  H.R. 3102 would eliminate that waiver authority, leaving states with only limited ability to provide exemptions to individuals.  It would also end benefits for an entire family if a parent is not working at least 20 hours per week, even if her/his child is only one year old, and even if unemployment remains high. And the bill gives states a reward for cutting families off SNAP – the state gets 50 percent of the reduced costs to use for any purpose.

About half of the cuts in H.R. 3102 are the result of two provisions related to how benefits and eligibility are determined.  The first eliminates the state option to provide benefits to low-income families and elderly whose gross incomes or assets are slightly above the federal SNAP limits.  The second significantly restricts the coordination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) with SNAP, the so-called ‘Heat and Eat’ provision. Currently SNAP-eligible households with a nominal LIHEAP payment are allowed to deduct a standard allowance for shelter and utilities, thereby increasing their SNAP benefit. This is particularly beneficial for seniors and those with disabilities who pay a high proportion of their income for shelter costs. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia utilize ‘Heat and Eat’. This provision will increase the states’ administrative costs associated with determining SNAP benefit levels.  For more details on H.R. 3102, see the September 17 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

The deep cuts to SNAP in H.R 3102 come at a time when lower income families have yet to benefit from the economic recovery.  In 2012 there were nearly 6.7 million more poor people than in 2008, the first full year of the Great Recession.  SNAP has proven to be effective at reducing poverty.  Nearly 4 million people rose out of poverty because of SNAP in 2012, of whom 1.67 million were children.  Investments in reducing hunger have also proven to have a positive impact on the economy.  Every $1 spent on nutrition assistance results in $1.70 in economic activity.

H.R. 3102 is a 3-year authorization bill, effectively severing it from the farm bill’s commodity subsides and conservation programs which are authorized for 5 years.  For decades, there has been bipartisan support in the farm bill for making sure that poor people can get the modest but vital SNAP benefits averaging $4 per day.  Separating farm subsidies from nutrition assistance would make it more difficult to garner support for SNAP, as evidenced by the partisan vote on H.R. 3102.

The vote on H.R. 3102 followed passage of a Senate farm bill, a failed attempt by the House to pass a farm bill, and passage in the House of an agriculture-only bill without nutrition provisions.  A summary of these actions follows.

Prior Actions in the House and Senate

The Senate passed its farm bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 3013 (S. 954) on June 10 by a vote of 66-27.  The bill includes a $4.1 billion cut in SNAP achieved by a smaller restriction of the “Heat and Eat” provision (see above).  During floor consideration, the Senate rejected an amendment (40-58) that would have cut SNAP by $31 billion over 10 years.

On June 20 the House failed to pass its farm bill, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (H.R. 1947).  The vote was 195-234 with 24 Democrats voting in favor despite a $20.5 billion cut to SNAP.  Republican opponents believed the SNAP cut was not deep enough. Prior to the bill’s defeat, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) passed that would allow pilot programs in states to mandate work requirements for SNAP recipients.  States would be allowed to keep half of the money saved by removing non-compliant families from the rolls.  This is an unprecedented incentive for states who could use the money for unspecified purposes. (A provision similar to the Southerland amendment was included in H.R. 3102.  See above.)  Leading congressional nutrition proponent Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-MA) amendment to restore the $20.5 billion SNAP cut failed 188-234.

After H.R. 1947 failed in the House, leadership decided to allow a vote on a split farm bill that included only the agriculture provisions of the bill, excluding nutrition programs.  The split version of the bill passed on July 11 by a vote of 216-208 with no Democrats voting in favor.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) then convened a group of House members who supported extreme changes to SNAP and developed H.R. 3102.

What’s Next

In less than two months, all SNAP recipients will see a reduction in their benefits when the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s temporary boost expires, leaving a family of three with $20-$25 less in benefits per month.

This fall a House-Senate conference committee will work to reconcile the very different bills passed by their chambers.  The Senate cuts SNAP by $4.1 billion and the House by nearly $40 billion.  The agriculture provisions also take different approaches with corn and soybean farmers favoring the Senate bill and rice, peanuts and other growers preferring the approach in the House bill.

The Farm Bill (PL 112-24), passed in 2008, expires on September 30.  Without an extension or reauthorization, the bill’s agriculture programs will revert to provisions set in 1949, while nutrition programs will remain funded.  However, even if there is no agreement on a new farm bill, the various SNAP cuts identified could find their way into broader deficit reduction efforts.

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