CHN: House Takes First Step To Reauthorize Food Stamp and Other Nutrition Programs
This week the House Agriculture Subcommittee took the first step toward reauthorizing nutrition programs by marking up the Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007, H.R. 2419. The nutrition programs authorized in the bill include the Food Stamp Program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Improvements in the nutrition title of the bill would cost $5.8 billion over five years, most of it for the Food Stamp Program. The FY ’08 budget Congress adopted requires offsets to pay for these improvements either by cutting other programs in the bill or elsewhere, or by increasing tax revenues. Thus far, offsets have not been identified. Committee members know they must work to find offsets before the improvements can be enacted.
The legislation represents a step forward for the Food Stamp Program which now serves about 26 million individuals. But although it is an entitlement program, only 65 percent of those eligible participate. Making changes in the way benefits are calculated and eligibility determined would increase food stamp benefits. H.R. 2419 would:
- Raise the standard deduction from $134 to $156 and index it for inflation for households with fewer than four members, which made up three-quarters of all food stamp households, whose benefits have been eroding as a result of cuts in the 1996 welfare bill;
- Allow families to deduct the full cost of child care expenses;
- Make permanent the exclusion of military pay for those deployed in combat zones;
- Exclude retirement accounts and certain education savings accounts from countable assets when determining eligibility; and
- Begin to index for inflation food stamp asset limits which have not increased for 20 years and currently stand at $2,000 for most households and $3,000 for elderly or disabled households, so they do not continue to erode further.
Other provisions could increase the participation rate. Low-income seniors and people with disabilities who receive the $10 minimum monthly benefit and others receiving small allotments would be able to accrue their benefits for up to 12 months before claiming it. For those who find it difficult to go to a local welfare office to certify or recertify for the food stamps, use of on-line applications and electronic signatures are approved. Telephone interviews would also be allowed. Signatures would, however, have to be obtained through the mail.
Mandatory funding for TEFAP, which supports food purchases by food banks, would be increased from $140 million annually to $250 million and adjusted for inflation in H.R 2419. TEFAP also receives discretionary funding for administration and support. CSFP, a program which provides foods purchased and distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to infants, children up to age 6, women who are breastfeeding and/or who have had a baby within the past year, and seniors, is also reauthorized in the Farm Bill. The bill also reauthorizes the Senior Farmer’s Market Program and the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellows and Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows Programs.
Several amendments were agreed upon in Subcommittee by voice vote. The first would rename the Food Stamp Program calling it the Secure Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SSNAP). Another amendment would establish a $10 million program over 5 years to create initiatives and strategies for education on obesity.
An amendment which failed by a vote of 6-5, with Democrats opposing and Republicans in support, would have overturned a provision in the bill that requires that state civil servants make all decisions about individual households’ eligibility for food stamp benefits. A recent experiment in Texas in which private companies were contracted to carry out significant portions of the food stamp application and eligibility determination processes had disastrous results.
Subcommittee Chairman Baca (D-CA) indicated that while he has yet to offer amendments to restore food stamps to legal permanent residents who must now wait 5 years to be eligible he hopes that the provision will be in the final bill. The full House Agriculture Committee is currently scheduled to consider the bill the last week in June.