CHN: Senate, House Pass Farm Bill Conference Report

President Bush To Sign Six-Year Agriculture Authorization
On Wednesday, May 8, the Senate passed the Farm Bill conference report by a vote of 64-35. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (HR 2646), adopted by the House on May 1, includes a six-year reauthorization of agricultural, commodity, conservation and nutrition programs in addition to providing federal farm subsidies. The bill includes $248.6 billion in mandatory funding through 2007, $51.7 billion of which is new funding. The conference report set funding for the Farm Bill’s nutrition title at $6.4 billion over ten years, almost twice as much as the House originally proposed but less than the $8.9 billion supported by Senate conferees.

In addition to increased funding, the nutrition title also includes the reauthorization of the Food Stamp Program. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that food stamp caseloads have been steadily increasing since July 2001. It is estimated that participation in the Food Stamp Program increased in February 2002 by 114,689 persons from the previous month, to a total of 19,024,839 participants nationwide.

The most significant Food Stamp Program improvements included in the Farm Bill are the restoration of food stamp benefits to legal immigrants. The measure will restore eligibility to disabled immigrants receiving other disability benefits and to all legal immigrant children, regardless of their date of entry in the United States. Food stamp eligibility will also be restored to all other legal immigrants who have been in the country continuously for five years or more.

Other eligibility restrictions are also modified as part of the reauthorization package. The measure increases the resource limit for households with a disabled member from $2,000 to $3,000, which is the current limit for households with an elderly member. It also provides a state option to exclude certain types of resources from the eligibility requirement. Excluded resources are those that each state does not currently count when determining TANF or Medicaid eligibility.

Furthermore, the nutrition title also includes other significant improvements to the Food Stamp Program, such as a change in the standard deduction used by program administrators when calculating a household’s monthly food stamp benefit. This provision replaces the current, fixed standard deduction with a deduction that varies according to household size and is adjusted annually for cost-of-living increases. This would increase monthly benefits for families of four or more by excluding more of their income from the benefit calculation. Almost two-thirds of the benefits from this change would go to families with incomes below 75 percent of the poverty line.

Other simplifications of the benefit calculation process include a provision that would allow states to use a simplified Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) rather than using a household’s actual utility costs. The measure would also allow states to use a standard shelter deduction of $143 per month for homeless households.

In addition, the Farm Bill offers specific provisions targeted at providing nutrition assistance for those families moving from welfare to work. Under this legislation, states may extend transitional food stamp benefits from the current three-month period up to five months for households that move off TANF cash assistance.

The bill also authorizes $90 million annually for unrestricted funding for the Food Stamp Employment and Training Program and up to $20 million in additional funding for states that pledge to offer work opportunities to unemployed, able-bodied, childless adults who are subject to the three-month time limit for food stamps benefits.

The new legislation will eliminate the current requirement that 80 percent of unmatched employment and training funds be used for able-bodied adults without dependents. It will also remove the requirement that states maintain their 1996 employment and training funding levels to access additional funds, as well as lift the cap on the amount that USDA will reimburse states for work activities, transportation, and other work costs incurred by participants in the Food Stamp Employment and Training Program.

Also included in the food stamp reauthorization are measures aimed at improving program administration and quality control. Current law imposes liabilities for each year a state’s payment error rate is above the national average; under the new provision, only those states with persistently high error rates would be subject to penalty.

In addition, the legislation would reform the current state funding system based on state error rates and replace it with a system that will award $48 million in bonuses each year to states with high or improved performance for actions taken to reduce the rates of error, improve eligibility determinations, or other activities that USDA determines demonstrate effective administration. Finally, the bill authorizes up to $5 million annually to pay the full costs for project grants to improve access for eligible households or to develop and implement simplified application and eligibility systems.

In addition to the numerous food stamp provisions, the nutrition title of the Farm Bill reauthorizes the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reserves and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. The legislation also includes some additional funding for the Emergency Feeding Program. The bill, however, does not include significant changes to USDA’s numerous child nutrition programs, many of which are up for reauthorization in 2003.

President Bush announced in a written statement last week that although the final Farm Bill does not satisfy all of his original objectives, he will sign the legislation into law as soon as the White House receives it.

Food and Nutrition