Food stamp program under GOP microscope

Washington – Congressional Republicans this week began a comprehensive review of the food stamp program to determine what is working – and to eliminate what in their view is not – a move that could impact thousands of recipients in Connecticut.

Even without changes in the program, thousands of unemployed food stamp recipients in Connecticut may find they are no longer eligible after the end of the year. But the GOP-controlled Congress is considering further whittling down the $74 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the official name for food stamps.

The food stamp program has grown rapidly across the nation as well as in Connecticut, doubling to 46 million recipients from 2007 to 2013. Most states experienced a slight drop in recipients in 2014, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, but in Connecticut and a handful of other states where the economic recovery was slower, cases continued to rise, the center says.

The Connecticut Department of Social Services listed 400,674 food stamp recipients in January of 2013. That number rose to 409,908 in January of 2014 and 413,742 last month. The average monthly individual benefit is about $150.

At a hearing this week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said previous GOP efforts to cut food stamps “didn’t resonate well” because Republicans didn’t spell out why it was important.

“In order for this thing to work, we have to have the American people supporting it, understand what’s working and not working,” Conaway said.

Conaway said he does not have concrete plans on how to change the system, but will develop them after a thorough review.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said he will conduct a similar review.

House Republicans were defeated last year in an attempt to cut the program by 5 percent annually by implementing new work requirements.

A final farm bill included a much smaller cut, scaling back a policy that entitled low-income SNAP recipients to receive more aid if they also received federal heating assistance. But several Democratic governors, led by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, found ways to avoid the cuts.

The governor, however, will not be able to avoid an automatic cut at the end of this year.

Because of high unemployment in recent years, Connecticut and almost all other states received a waiver from a SNAP requirement that “abled bodied” adults, aged 18-49 without dependents, work or be in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps for more than 90 days in any three-year period.

Connecticut’s waiver expires at the end of the year, as do the waivers in many other states. Since Congress is not expected to extend them, statewide waivers are expected to be eliminated as of Dec. 31.

The Connecticut Department of Social Services says there are 53,509 food stamp recipients in the state today who are aged 18-49 and don’t have dependents. It is not known how many are jobless.

The SNAP work requirement originated in a 1996 overhaul of the federal welfare program. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who voted against the welfare reform bill, says the waivers should stay.

DeLauro is one of the most vigorous supporters of the food stamp program in Congress and serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for it.

“The single biggest economic issue facing American families today is that jobs do not pay enough to live on,” DeLauro said. “Particularly when job training programs are being cut, we should not be exacerbating the problem by unceremoniously cutting adults off of SNAP before they have had a chance to get back on their feet. Ending SNAP benefits for struggling adults after just three months was bad policy in 1996, and it is bad policy now.”

Lucy Noland, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, a non-profit group that helps people apply for food stamps and other government nutrition programs, said the economic recovery has lowered the unemployment rate but still left many people jobless.

“There are abled-bodied people who are unable to get work,” Nolan said. “It doesn’t make sense to me if someone can’t get work they can’t get SNAP.”

The state may be able to apply for waivers for specific areas in Connecticut where the unemployment rate continues to be high.

Divergent views

At a House Agriculture Committee hearing this week on the SNAP program, Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified that most “abled-bodied” food stamp recipients had incomes far below the poverty level.

He also said the number of cases of food stamp fraud are very small, contradicting reports from conservative think tanks and Republican lawmakers, who say it is rampant. Some of those lawmakers are backing a bill that would require recipients to show photo identification to receive benefits.

“I hope the committee will keep in mind the accomplishments the program has made and proceed with appropriate caution,” he said. “The well-being of millions of vulnerable Americans is at stake.”

Greenstein also testified that most states don’t offer enough job-training slots to help the number of food stamp recipients that face an end to benefits.

Doug Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, testified that food stamps and other social program often provide a disincentive for the unemployed to find work.

“The work-discouraging effect of safety-net programs should be neither surprising or controversial,” Besharov said. “Their very purpose is making getting a job less urgent. They are supposed to soften the financial effect of unemployment and give the unemployed time to find a good job. This is unquestionably a valid societal role, but at some point benefits are large enough to make working seem not worthwhile…”

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