Last week, House Republicans pushed through legislation to reduce spending on the federal food stamp program known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The caterwauling from some objecting to the cut conjured up images of the waifish Oliver Twist being shouted down when he asked for seconds during mealtime at the orphanage.
Massachusetts Democrat James McGovern called the legislation “one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen.” Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee said the House was tossing hungry children into the abyss.
SNAP’s annual budget has increased four-fold in a little over a decade, from $18 billion in 2000 to $80 billion today, with one out of seven Americans receiving food stamps. The Great Recession drove more people to food stamps and that accounts for most of the increase, but also Washington—Democrats and Republicans—changed eligibility requirements to make it easier to get food stamps.
The Republican proposal cuts $40 billion out of SNAP over the next ten years, which amounts to about five percent, and these are not reductions that take food out of the mouths of hungry children.
Half of the savings will come from tightening requirements for able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 without dependents. Under the 1996 welfare reform law passed during the Clinton administration, those adults were limited to three months of food stamps out of any three-year period without working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a job training program.
But over time, various waivers to those requirements expanded eligibility. According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents on SNAP rose 164 percent from 2007 to 2011, accounting for 10 percent of all recipients in 2011 (the latest CRS year available).
The legislation saves another $11.6 billion by eliminating “categorical eligibility;” that’s where individuals automatically qualify for food stamps if they’re already getting other federal assistance, such as welfare or SSI. A General Accounting Office report found that 39 states or jurisdictions using categorical eligibility had no asset test at all, meaning it was ripe for abuse.
Individuals enrolled in other safety-net programs can still qualify for food stamps, but they have to sign up and meet eligibility requirements.
The legislation also closes the so-called “heat-and-eat” loophole. Currently, if a low income household receives any assistance with their heating bills, they qualify for an increase in their SNAP benefits. Some states abuse this provision by sending $1 or $5 to the home which, according to the formula, can trigger as much as $130 a month more in food stamps.
The bill is now headed to the Senate, where it will likely fail. Even if it passes, President Obama will veto it. All the while, critics of the legislation will trot out the worn hyperbole about starving children.