CHN: Food Stamps and Emergency Food Gains Move Forward in Senate Farm Bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill (H.R. 2419) on October 25, including a nutrition title that begins to reverse years of shrinking Food Stamp benefits and increases spending for emergency food.  The farm bill is now headed for the Senate floor, with action not likely to occur before the week of November 5.  When the bill reaches the floor, advocates are working to support amendments to make further improvements so that losses experienced by low-income working families, the elderly, and people with disabilities can be more quickly turned around.
The House enacted its farm bill on July 27.  Both the House and the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee spend about $4.2 billion over 5 years on the nutrition provisions, but they do not apportion the funds in the same way.  The Senate bill spends less on certain Food Stamp improvements than the House, and spends considerably more to expand a fresh fruit and vegetable program operating in public schools.  The Senate committee recommends $1.1 billion over 5 years to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schools in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.  The House bill provides $275 million over 5 years, or an increase from the current $9 million a year to $70 million a year.  Many advocates believe that the Food Stamp improvements are critical, since they reach millions of people.

The Senate bill makes some progress, but does not go as far as the House in reversing inflation’s erosion of Food Stamp assistance.  The minimum benefit, unchanged at $10 a month for the past three decades, would rise to $12 a month, and would then grow with inflation.  The House bill raises the minimum benefit to $16 a month.  The 5-year cost of raising the minimum benefit is $71 million in the Senate bill, and $243 million in the House version.  Similarly, the Senate increases the standard deduction (which allows families to exclude certain expenses in calculating benefits) from $134 per month to $140, and then adjusts it for inflation.  The House version increased the standard deduction to $145 per month (and then allows it to grow with inflation).  The larger standard deduction in the House legislation is funded at $2.18 billion over 5 years; in the Senate bill the cost is $1.4 billion.  According to a Senate staff analysis of the Agriculture Committee bill, because the standard deduction was fixed at $134 a month in 1996, a typical working parent with two children will receive $37 a month less in Food Stamps in 2008 than the family would have if the benefit had been adjusted for inflation.

Both bills contain similar provisions to allow families with high child care expenses to deduct those costs in calculating Food Stamp benefits.  Both Senate and House bills allow households to have more in savings without being disqualified for benefits.  Current limits of $2,000 – $3,000 in savings (assets) will start to be adjusted for inflation, and education and retirement savings will not count towards the limit.

The Senate bill includes some provisions not part of the House nutrition title.  The bill allows unemployed adults without children to receive Food Stamps for six months out of 36, up from the current meager three-month limit, at a cost estimated at $64 million over 5 years.  The Senate Committee also allows people with disabilities and the elderly to report their income less frequently, to simplify their continued receipt of Food Stamps, and expands transitional Food Stamp assistance for families moving from welfare to work (at a combined 5-year cost of $181 million).

Recognizing the serious shortage of food donations to emergency food pantries, the Senate bill increases annual funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) from $140 million to $240 million.  (The House had increased funding to $250 million a year.)

The nutrition title is just one part of the farm bill, with major sections for farm price supports and conservation.  After H.R. 2419 receives full Senate approval, the House and Senate must resolve differences between the two bills by November 16, or pass a further temporary extension of the legislation.

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