Food stamps are the face of welfare, and House Republicans are determined to force a showdown with the president and Senate over the nation’s social programs.
The House of Representatives voted 217-210 Thursday to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by tightening loopholes and restoring work requirements. That amounts to $4 billion in cuts per year, about 5 percent of the $80 billion program. The cut is 10 times greater than the $400 million proposed Senate cut, and Democrats are howling about it.
House Republicans separated food stamps from the farm subsidies bill, a long-standing legislative marriage that formed a compromise between rural and urban lawmakers. But food stamps remain in the Senate version of the farm bill, and both Senate leaders and President Barack Obama have drawn a line in the sand over the split.
The disagreement sets up the need for a complicated reconciliation between two issues, two parties, and three bills. Current farm and SNAP law expires at the end of September, although voters wouldn’t feel the effects of a delay for months. Food stamps and many farm subsidies are already funded for this fiscal year.
In short, the fight has only just begun.
Under the House cuts, as many as 3.8 million food stamp recipients could lose SNAP benefits in 2014. By comparison, the program saw a jump of 20 million, to 47.7 million recipients, during the recession. Some recipients would continue to receive benefits but at a reduced rate. Certainly some SNAP recipients don’t need it, but how many? And does the House focus cuts on the least needy?
According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 1.7 million facing losses would be able-bodied, childless adults subject to work requirements. Congress waived these requirements during the recession. Rachel Sheffield, of the Heritage Foundation, told me recipients have 12 ways to fulfill the requirement. States can even make community service qualify. In short, the economically unemployed shouldn’t lose benefits, as critics of the cuts claim. States could continue exemptions for up to 15 percent of those able-bodied adults.
The other 2.1 million would lose benefits because the bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method states use to automatically qualify people for SNAP if they receive other benefits. Some of those people do not meet current SNAP income and asset tests. While eliminating this loophole doesn’t account for some families’ special circumstances, these aren’t the poorest poor.
Despite claims the bill only seeks to slash benefits to the poor, it appears to demonstrate some innovative thinking. For example, the House legislation proposes a new delivery service that could bring food to the elderly and disabled who can’t shop for themselves. The organization would sell the food at cost, at little to no delivery fee.
One important change would prohibit the government from using SNAP money to recruit or “persuade an individual” to apply, except following natural disasters. The bill also bans “entities receiving benefits” from using their own money to recruit people to SNAP. It’s not clear if that applies to state governments. Sheffield told me it appears states could still fund their own persuasion programs. Simple accounting maneuvers might keep widespread persuasion tactics legal.
Other changes in the House bill include:
- Convicted murders and sex offenders would not receive benefits.
- Excess benefits at the end of each month would be dropped from cards.
- Lottery or gambling participants with “substantial” winnings would lose benefits.
- Eligibility enforcers would use of National Directory of New Hires for quarterly income reviews, an upgrade from the annual income reports that programs like Social Security Disability Insurance use.
- Pilot work programs would experiment with ways to get people more employable and back to work.