Fight over food stamps shows the sharp division in Congress

Washington – To many House Republicans, especially its tea party members, the food stamp program must shrink because it has become bloated and too expensive. They assert that the states have expanded eligibility to those who are not needy.

To Democrats like Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, GOP lawmakers who want to reduce the food stamp program are taking food from the mouths of hungry children.

“Cutting food stamps is a dereliction of our moral duty,” DeLauro said.

The congressional fight over food stamps will peak this week when GOP leaders hope to schedule a vote on the nutrition title of the farm bill on the floor. The measure would make a $40 billion cut over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps.

It comes just as the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing that poverty in the United States is not abating.  The Census Bureau found that the poverty rate has held steady at about 15 percent, about 2.5 percentage points higher than when the recession began. Poverty rates are the highest among children, and proportionately higher among women and girls.

The polarization in Congress on the issue of food stamps is such that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said not one House Democrat will vote for the Republican proposal.

DeLauro and most Democrats view food stamps as helping those living on the edge, especially children and the elderly, who receive nearly 70 percent of the benefits.

DeLauro said Tuesday that she’s dumbstruck over the tea party-led campaign to tighten eligibility rules for the program so fewer people qualify.

“I don’t understand anyone’s motivation to do this. What could be in their hearts? What could be in their heads to want to deny food to people who are hungry?” DeLauro asked.  

The Republican-led House in July approved the part of the farm bill that reauthorizes all agriculture programs. But Republicans could not agree on what they wanted to do with food stamps.

Because tea party members said the bill did not go far enough, a proposal that would cut the food stamp program by $20 billion failed. So did an attempt to cut the program by $30 billion.

Conservative Republicans are finally supporting the latest attempt to cut the food stamp program, however.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said he will vote for the $40 billion reduction, a little reluctantly.

“I don’t think it’s enough,”  Mulvaney said. “I still think the spending levels are too high.”

Most of the money in the GOP bill would be saved by significantly curtailing the use of “categorical eligibility,” a process by which state agencies grant SNAP benefits to individuals who qualify for other state assistance programs.

In 2009, the depths of the recession, Connecticut moved to allow all people qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to be automatically eligible for food stamps. This effectively raised the income limit to qualify for SNAP from 135 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent, the limit on TANF.

“Before [categorical eligibility] was implemented, we were turning away a lot of people who missed qualifying by a dollar,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, a group that helps people apply for SNAP.

Many states have done the same as Connecticut, arguing that categorical eligibility is an efficient way to avoid paperwork and curtail the work of social workers.

But Republicans who back a reduction in the SNAP program say much of the program’s dramatic expansion is the result of states giving benefits to people who do not qualify.

Their food stamp bill would also allow states to require that able-bodied food stamp recipients spend 20 hours a week in a job or job training. States who agreed to do so would be able to keep half of the money saved because fewer people would be eligible for SNAP.

To Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., the issue is breaking the dependency he says some people have on social programs like food stamps and prodding them back into the workforce. He also wants to prevent others from paying the way for those who will not work.

“While a lot of people focus on the budget numbers, this is really all about people and about families and how do we incentivize work and how do we get a society that is engaged in work as a part of our culture,” Lankford said.

The food stamp program has had a steep ramp-up that began before the recession hit in 2008. The  program served 17 million people, at a cost of about  $15 billion, in 2001. Last year there were 46 million Americans — more than 200,000 in Connecticut — enrolled in SNAP at a cost of about $75 billion.

The GOP’s food stamp bill also proposes to set an assets limit of $2,000 to qualify for food stamps. That means an applicant could own a car and home but have no more than $2,000 as cash in the bank or other assets.

Connecticut eliminated its assets limit for food stamps in 2009.

There’s another consequence of taking people off the SNAP program.

Eligibility for food stamps automatically enrolls children in the school lunch program. So the GOP food stamp bill would also remove children from that.

“It’s going to affect a lot more people than they think,” Nolan said of the GOP proposal.

The Connecticut Department of Social Services said it could not immediately determine how many food stamp recipients would be affected by the bill Congress will consider this week.

Even without the GOP’s cuts, food stamp benefits will be trimmed in November as the increase in benefits established by the stimulus bill expires.

In addition to the U.S. Census Bureau report citing continuing poverty nationwide, anti-poverty and nutrition activists stepped up pressure on Congress Tuesday with the formation of a new group called Food Policy Action that aims to keep track of all of the lawmakers’ votes on federal nutrition programs.

A founder of the group, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, said, “it’s a new organization that felt it was time to hold Congress accountable.”

Pelosi hopes that enough Republicans who support food stamps help House Democrats kill the bill. But even if it is approved, the House farm bill will have to be negotiated with a farm bill in the Senate, which will most likely reject the steep cuts to food stamps.

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