Washington – Federal funding for food stamps could be cut by $10 billion over 10 years under a compromise that would break a House-Senate deadlock and continue funding for a program that helps feed 430,000 across Connecticut, home to some of the nation’s richest suburbs and poorest cities.
The compromise under consideration by negotiators for House Republicans and Senate Democrats has alarmed anti-hunger advocates, even if the cut is a quarter of the $40 billion sought by the GOP-controlled House. The Democratic majority in the Senate had proposed a $4 billion reduction.
“I am not of the compromising mind on this because [food stamp recipients] are not getting enough benefits as it is,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut! “I am taking a hard line on this.”
In Hartford, where the unemployment rate has been around 15 percent, more than 50,000 people receive SNAP benefits, by far the most in Connecticut. But the program benefits residents in all regions: the older industrial towns of the Naugatuck Valley, the Litchfield Hills, the Gold Coast communities of Greenwich and Darien, and rural communities of eastern Connecticut.
Several proposals are being considered to reach those $10 billion in savings. Each of them is likely to impact all of the 47 million people across the nation who benefit from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, the official name for food stamps.
One concerns the “heat and eat” loophole many states, including Connecticut, uses to help increase food stamp benefits. The SNAP statute allows families who have high shelter costs and receive benefits from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), to receive higher food stamp benefits.
So the state of Connecticut makes sure everyone on the food stamp program receives at least $1 in LIHEAP benefits.
Closing that loophole to require at least $10 to $20 in LIHEAP benefits to qualify for increased food stamp benefits is under consideration by farm bill negotiators.
Republicans appear determined to also keep a provision that would require able-bodied adults without children who receive food stamps to work or attend job training at least 20 hours a week. The work requirement was included in the food stamp program during the 1996 debate on welfare reform, but states were allowed to waive it. Connecticut is one of 46 states that did.
“I really get frustrated and angry when people say people who are getting SNAP benefits should get a job,” said Nancy Carrington, president and chief executive of the Connecticut Food Bank.
Carrington said the economy may have improved for some, but not for all: Many higher-paying jobs have been lost, replaced by lower-paying ones.
“The economy has not come around sufficiently for a lot of people,” she said.
In addition, Carrington said, more than half of SNAP recipients aren’t able-bodied, childless adults. In Connecticut, about 149,000 are children and 102,000 are elderly people.
Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is determined to preserve “categorical eligibility,” flexibility given to states like Connecticut in administering SNAP.
That allows states to enroll people automatically for food stamps if they qualify for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, the official name for the welfare program. To qualify for TANF, an applicant can earn no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but to qualify for food stamps an applicant may only earn 130 percent or less of the poverty level. So registering for food stamps through the TANF program allows those with slightly higher incomes to qualify for SNAP.
When Connecticut allowed for “categorical eligibility” in 2009, Nolan said there was a surge of new food stamp applicants whose unemployment benefits had previously put them over the income limit.
While Democrats like Stabenow are trying to hold the line on cuts, they know they will have to give.
There is talk of standardizing income and asset caps across the states. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., has a proposal to cap income to 160 percent of the federal poverty level and cap assets, such as cash savings, to $4,000.
‘Terrible for the future’
But liberal Democrats like Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents the New Haven-based 3rd Congressional District, won’t agree to even a minimal reduction in food stamp benefits or eligibility.
“Any cuts to food stamp benefits would be terrible for families on the edge, terrible for our economic recovery and terrible for the future,” she said. “Food stamps help hungry people get food and they make a profound difference, especially for children, who need nutritious food to ensure proper development.”
DeLauro joined a group of lawmakers last week who called for curbing farm subsidies that will also be reauthorized by the farm bill. They pointed to an Environmental Working Group report that said millions of dollars in subsidies has gone to billionaires.
Farm bill negotiators should “do the right thing and end subsidies for America’s wealthiest families and agribusinesses, not take food away from the poor and most vulnerable,” DeLauro said.
Negotiators hope to finish work on the farm bill by Thanksgiving. Then it would face a vote in the House and Senate, where liberal Democrats like DeLauro will try to defeat it, even if they don’t have the numbers to do so.
A new reduction in food stamp benefits would come on the heels of a recent drop in benefits for all recipients as a temporary expansion in the program provided by the stimulus bill expired Nov. 1.
The expiration of the stimulus bill, approved by Congress after the economy tanked in 2008, reduces benefits for a family of three to $29 a month and $36 for a family of four, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Carrington of the Connecticut Food Bank said the expiration of the stimulus bill alone will result in 17 million fewer meals for Connecticut’s needy in the next year.
“We are hard pressed to try to meet the need that is out there, and this is going to mean more hardship,” she said.
The SNAP program remains a tempting target for congressional budget cutters who must deal with mandatory across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration and an increasing demand for government programs as the U.S. population grows and ages.
SNAP’s cost exploded during the recession, from $26 million in 2007 to $80 billion in 2013.
Anti-hunger advocates say the increase is warranted because of slow economic recovery and a sharp run-up in the cost of food.
According to the Consumer Price Index, the inflation rate has been around 2 percent annually for the past several years. But the cost of food has been rising at more than double that rate, between 3 percent and 5.5 percent a year.
“Poor people did not get us into this economic situation, so why do they have to get us out if it?” Nolan asked.