Congress finally appears on track to pass a new farm bill this year after stumbling badly with a failed attempt during the 2012 election season. But a bitter battle over the massive federal food stamp program – and how deeply to cut it – could once again prove a major stumbling block.
Earlier this week the Senate passed a nearly $1 trillion farm bill for the coming decade, including $4.1 billion in food stamp savings, while the House is likely to act later this summer on its own version, calling for more than $20 billion of reductions in the program over ten years.
The House bill would eliminate food assistance for nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children, as well as senior citizens, according to CBO. The majority of the savings would result in eliminating a state option known as “categorical eligibility” that allows states to provide food assistance to low-income households and seniors that exceed limits on gross income and assets.
Under the Senate version, however, almost nobody would lose eligibility for food stamps, except ex-convicts and their families under an amendment sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA ). The bill also would crack down on the illegal trafficking of food stamps.
The full House now must approve the bill as it emerged from the Agriculture Committee in May, and then attempt to reconcile its many differences with the Senate version—particularly the $16 billion difference in food stamp cuts. But House Republicans reportedly remain sharply divided over their own plan, with some members arguing to strip the food stamp program from the overall farm bill and then reduce its spending level.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) told The Fiscal Times Wednesday that while he is confident he could negotiate a compromise with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) over the commodity supports and conservation sections of the farm legislation, “the nutrition [food stamp] thing is just the most difficult because of the wide disparity” of the proposed cuts.
PROTECTIONS IN PLACE
Food stamp spending amounts to 80 percent of overall agriculture spending, and until recently has been carefully protected by a coalition of urban Democrats, consumer advocates, liberal public policy groups and anti-poverty activists – working in tandem with rural lawmakers who needed their support to pass the other parts of the farm bill providing generous subsidies.
But many congressional Republicans and conservative groups believe that food stamp spending is out of control and ripe with corruption – and that it needs to be reined in to reduce the deficit. These critics say a once relatively modest social safety net has grown into a costly grab bag for down-on-their-luck middle-class Americans, college students looking for free pizza and junk food and countless others who game the system.
Food stamp fraud costs taxpayers about $750 million a year, or 1 percent of the $75 billion program. Amid growing GOP complaints about fraud and waste in the program, the Obama administration last May took steps to go after merchants and beneficiaries who traffic in food stamp debit cards.
Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst with the libertarian Heritage Foundation, complained that neither the House nor the Senate bill would impose savings commensurate with the huge growth in the food stamp program in the Bush and Obama administrations. “Really, the program needs to be reformed in more ways than just getting costs under control,” she said. That would include adding a work requirement for able-bodied adults.
But as the economy continues its slow and uneven recovery, Democrats say it would be foolish and cruel to slash food stamp spending as an austerity measure, especially when the deficit has begun to decline.
“I don’t believe we should balance the debt on the backs of families who are just hungry,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said recently. She warned the reductions in financing for the program would cause millions to go hungry.
IS EVERYONE ON FOOD STAMPS?
By any measure, the growth of the program to help feed the hungry in America has been astounding over the past decade, driven by the recession, declining wages, passage of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that temporarily boosted benefits, and the decision of many states to expand “categorical eligibility,” according to experts.
Annual spending on food stamps was just $15 billion back in 2000. But spending doubled under Republican President George W. Bush and doubled again under President Obama to reach a total of $78.4 billion last year. Over that same period, recipients more than doubled, from an average of 17.3 million in 2000 to 46.6 million last year. During that time, the average benefit per person rose from $72.62 a month to $133.41 a month, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Notably, the sharp increase in food stamp usage did not come from a sudden rise in grocery store prices. As a share of after-tax income, Americans have since 2006 spent between 11.1 percent and 11.4 percent of their earnings on food, according to Agriculture Dept. records.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves primarily the poor. More than 90 percent of SNAP expenditures are for food assistance benefits for low-income households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But as guidelines were loosened and the Agriculture Dept. aggressively encouraged the poor and elderly to sign up, the profile of recipients changed somewhat to include more formerly middle-class people and college students who were struggling to pay tuition, room and board.
The Washington Post reported that some college students are bypassing expensive college meal plans and applying for food stamps instead. The paper said this is “an option that once carried a social stigma on campus but no longer does, now that food stamp usage is more commonplace at colleges.” Students can qualify for food stamps, for example, if they receive public assistance benefits, work at least 20 hours a week, or care for a dependent child.
In some places, student signups for food stamps are considerable. The Virginia Department of Social Services said its SNAP expenditures on college students just for the month of January 2007 was $447,000. By January of 2012, that number had risen to $2.9 million. The total for college students in 2011 was $30 million, according to The Post.
In 2011, Michigan’s Department of Human Services tightened its food stamp eligibility qualifications, kicking 30,000 students off the program and saving $75 million, according to The Detroit News. Under the new rules, only single moms and students who work 20 hours a week qualify.
Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that as the economy improves, spending on food stamps has begun to plateau. And with the expiration of the Recovery and Investment act in November, the level of monthly benefits will fall by $25 for all recipients.
“The program is not growing out of control,” she said. “We actually already have seen the leveling off.”