Is it a cut, or a closed loophole?
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the farm bill recently passed by Congress and awaiting the President's signature would reduce spending by an estimated approximately $16.5 billion and increase revenues by approximately $100 million over ten years.
Of the $16.5 billion in spending reductions, approximately $8.5 billion is through changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
This is a far cry from the approximately $40 billion in reduced SNAP spending included in the House version of the farm bill, which would have eliminated eligibility for approximately 3.8 million people, and is about double the reduction in the Senate version of approximately $4 billion.
"It does address or reduce some of the abuses of the past," said U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who sits on the House committee on Agriculture. "The savings are estimated to be somewhere in the $8 billion realm. That was the number Republicans and Democrats, with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, have agreed to. The SNAP program is not to be where people get most of their food. It's to be a supplement to other sources."
The lion's share of the SNAP spending reduction would come from a provision limiting so-called "heat-and-eat" programs.
"Heat-and-eat" works through a SNAP provision which allows states to give a larger benefit to households that receive Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits. The program also allows automatic qualification for SNAP benefits for households receiving LIHEAP benefits that otherwise would not meet eligibility.
Under the current program, in 16 states and the District of Columbia, as little as $1 in LIHEAP benefits can be enough to qualify for SNAP benefits or benefit increases.
"There are some states, including Pennsylvania, where it automatically qualifies somebody for food stamps if they give them $1 of low-income heating assistance," Thompson noted. "That number has been raised to $20. That's a significant step from a statewide perspective. The states will be more responsible in making sure they're signing people up that are truly eligible."
The recently passed bill would require a household to receive a minimum of $20 in LIHEAP benefits before it impacted SNAP benefits.
Whether you consider the move cutting vital benefits or closing a loophole ripe for abuse is a matter of perspective.
The joint House-Senate conference committee which reconciled farm bills from both chambers of Congress and included the provision as a compromise measure estimates approximately 850,000 households will see an average $90 per month reduction in SNAP benefits due to the change.
For those 850,000 households, it's likely viewed as an out-and-out benefit cut rather than a reform measure.
The reconciled bill also includes other reforms including clarifying eligibility rules to ensure lottery winners and affluent individuals without regular income are not enrolled, creating pilot programs for states to test welfare-for-work programs, requiring states to utilize immigration status verification programs and eliminating funds to promote SNAP program enrollment.
"First of all, what it does is assure that they are truly eligible for supplemental nutrition," Thompson said. "It addresses other issues where we're seeing abuses, such as incentives and monies to promote and to go out an sign up just warm bodies for food stamps because states were being provided incentives for doing that. So it makes those types of corrections.
"It has a ten state pilot program as a part of it. Ten states will pilot requiring able-bodied adults who do not have dependents at home to be either working or engaged in some type of training program before they would be eligible for food stamps. Last I looked at it, over 80 percent of Americans support that concept. With people who find themselves in difficult circumstances, it's not enough to just provide a safety net. We want to give them a hand out of that. We want to put them on a path to greater opportunity. So I'm kind of excited about this ten state pilot opportunity. Obviously I would love Pennsylvania to be one of those (states). I don't know if that will occur or not."
Thompson provided an explanation of how SNAP ended up tied to the farm bill, and, perhaps, some incite into why a House attempt to sever the nutrition title from the farm bill last year into separate legislation was ultimately abandoned.
"It's fairly straight-forward," he said. "The SNAP program was added to the farm bill in order to secure enough votes that we can move forward with our agriculture changes. That was done the first time back in the 1970s, largely because too many people in the country and too many people in Congress are too many generations removed from the farm. There are only about a hundred Congressional districts, such as ours, where we actually grow food and provide for the rest of the country. When you only have a hundred out of 435 (districts), it's hard to 218 or 219 votes. So they added the food stamps back then."
He also defended the changes to the SNAP program, including the benefit reductions.
"This farm bill deals, I think, responsibly," Thompson said. "It actually provides the first real reforms to the food stamp program since - I think the last time that occurred was under President Clinton. This is really about reform. Making sure that we're doing our best to assure that the people who truly are eligible and need this are receiving it. Taking measures to eliminate abuse by others."
According to Thompson, the changes are part of broader reductions in the farm bill that represent real progress on spending.
"We actually have made cuts in mandatory spending," he said. "We never go into mandatory spending. That is the holy grail for me in trying to reduce cuts. We cut $23 billion in mandatory spending. So this is a reform bill from agriculture policy. We've consolidated more than 100 different programs and it's a reform bill for, the first time since 1996 under President Clinton, the welfare program. So it's a bill I'm very proud of actually and I'm proud to be a part of the leadership that wrote it and put it forward."