House Approves Harsh Cuts in Food Stamps

Last Thursday the House voted in favor of H.R. 3102, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, a bill that, amongst other things, will decrease the budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, by almost $40 million over the next ten years.

As The New York Times’ Ron Nixon reported:

The vote was 217 to 210, largely along party lines.

Republican leaders, under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives, said the bill was needed because the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, had grown out of control. They said the program had expanded even as jobless rates had declined with the easing recession.

“This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, who led efforts to split the food stamps program from the overall farm bill. “In the real world, we measure success by results. It’s time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year.”

It would also limit the time those recipients could get benefits to three months. Currently, states can extend food stamp benefits past three months for able-bodied people who are working or preparing for work as part of a job-training program.

“This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said.

The bill would also restrict people enrolled in other social welfare programs from automatically becoming eligible for food stamps.

In addition, the legislation would allow states to require food stamp recipients to be tested for drugs and to stop lottery winners from getting benefits. The Senate farm bill also contains a restriction on lottery winners.

The notion that people take advantage of this safety net for reasons other than actual need seems to be widely accepted amongst those policy makers who voted in favor. They fail to recognize that the rise in use of SNAP is related to economic hardship, as a recent study completed by Harvard academics show. Some may wonder then why despite the economic boom during the Bush administration the number of SNAP recipients remained constant or increased. Paul Krugman wittily addressed this question in his blog:

The Clinton expansion led to a substantial rise in incomes near in the lower part of the distribution, and was accompanied by a sharp fall in SNAP usage. The Bush expansion never did reach many Americans, so it’s no surprise that SNAP use didn’t fall. And then, of course, SNAP use surged in the crisis, which is what is supposed to happen with a safety net program.

Oh, and SNAP use hasn’t come down yet in the recovery because for lower-income Americans, there hasn’t been a recovery.

Since someone is going to point it out: yes, there has been some expansion of eligibility — much of it with bipartisan support — so that more people are on food stamps now than during the early 1990s, even though incomes are similar. But the story of the past decade is overwhelmingly about a program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, aiding people facing real hardship.

If implemented, the proposed statute would affect countless families. A report released on Tuesday, September 17, by the Census Bureau showed that in 2012 SNAP kept 4 million Americans, 1.7 million of which are children, out of poverty.  This data only proves the virtue of the program. Most likely without the safety net of SNAP the number of people living in poverty would be much higher than the current 47 million.  The Founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein, could not have phrased it better in his statement:

By cutting food assistance for at least 3.8 million low-income people in the coming year — including some of the very poorest Americans, many children and senior citizens, and even veterans — this cruel, if not heartless, legislation could jeopardize a vital stepping stone to many families who are still struggling to find work or who depend on low-wage jobs.  As the nation slowly climbs out of the deepest recession in decades — with 22 million people still unemployed or underemployed — millions of families rely on SNAP to help feed their children.

SNAP recipients already are preparing for an across-the-board cut in their SNAP benefits beginning in November that will reduce their modest benefits to less than $1.40 per person per meal.

Let us hope that the Senate is able to make a better assessment of the benefits of SNAP and does not enact this proposed measure.