CHN: Farm Bill Finally Enacted, With Disappointing SNAP Cuts

On February 7, President Obama signed the farm bill into law.  After a two-year struggle to come to agreement, Congress finally enacted the bill to reauthorize farm, nutrition, and conservation legislation for another five years.  There were bitter divisions over the legislation, with most anti-hunger advocates deeply distressed over the $8.6 billion cut in SNAP/food stamps included in the bill, which will result in 850,000 households losing about $90 per month in food assistance.  Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) spoke for many of the 103 House Democrats voting against the farm bill:  “Congress has lost its way.  This conference report is nothing more than Reserve Robin Hood legislation that steals food from the poor in favor of crop subsidies for the rich.”
The SNAP cut limited the ability of states to provide a very small Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefit in order to qualify SNAP-eligible households for higher SNAP benefits.  Households receiving LIHEAP funds are automatically able to have their SNAP benefits calculated based on a Standard Utility Allowance, without having to submit receipts for specific heating bills.  The restriction in the enacted farm bill requires states to pay households at least $20 per year in LIHEAP benefits before they can make use of the Standard Utility Allowance.  It would affect people in 17 states now coordinating LIHEAP and SNAP benefits in this way.

Total savings in the bill as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office are $16.6 billion over 10 years.  There is a net savings of $14.3 billion in the Commodity Programs section of the bill, which includes various farm supports.  Direct payments to farms whether or not they are growing anything are ended, at a savings of over $40 billion over 10 years.  However, that savings is considerably reduced by increases in crop insurance and other new subsidy programs.  The Environmental Working Group, an organization that tracks farm subsidies, expects that these new or increased subsidies will provide more to at least some agricultural interests than under the previous law.

There are increases in the Nutrition title of the legislation, including $205 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and $250 million for pilot projects intended to increase work among SNAP recipients.  These and other increases bring the net savings from the Nutrition provisions to $8.0 billion over 10 years.

Anti-hunger advocates are relieved that the $40 billion in cuts to SNAP proposed by the House were mostly rejected in the final bill.  These cuts would have kicked millions of low-income people off SNAP altogether. The final legislation did not include a lifetime ban of SNAP to certain ex-offenders, drug-testing of recipients, or harsh work requirements.  In addition, the new law includes administrative improvements for SNAP to further reduce fraud and disarm critics.  One provision specifically denies SNAP to big lottery winners. (For more on the averted cuts and administrative changes, see this by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

Still, the sizable reduction in SNAP for so many households is a blow, particularly disappointing for many advocates since it follows soon after the November reductions affecting all households receiving SNAP.  Although champions in Congress have fought to reduce the extent of cuts, it remains true that low-income people, hit by SNAP and Unemployment Insurance losses, have borne disproportionate pain in the deficit reduction wars.

The bill, H.R. 2642, passed the House 251-166 on January 29, followed by Senate enactment on February 4, with a vote of 68-32.  There were bipartisan majorities in both bodies, but those hoping the farm bill’s passage signals a new spirit of cooperation duly noted that no Republicans showed up at the President’s bill-signing, held at Michigan State University.

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