At long last the Farm Bill conferees have reached a compromise agreement that will be voted on by the full House and Senate. The Farm Bill reauthorizes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the next five years.
The compromise version of the Farm Bill includes some minor improvements to the program. What is most noteworthy, however is that all of the House proposals that would have collectively disqualified nearly four million hungry people from receiving any SNAP benefits were rejected.
That said, the compromise version does make one serious cut to the program that will have a significant effect on 850,000 people (four percent of overall recipients) in 16 states (not including Illinois). This cut is realized by tightening up on how benefits are calculated for certain recipients, as described below.
The House proposals rejected by the Senate and not included in the compromise version included:
- Eliminating the federal Food and Nutrition Service’s authority to waive, in high unemployment areas, the requirement that non-disabled, childless adults work or are enrolled in job training programs for 20 hours per week.This group is among the poorest of the poor, with an average annual income of $2500. More than 40 percent are women, one-third are over age 40, and many are veterans.
- A related proposal to require all adults other than parents with a child under age one to work or are enrolled in a job training program for at least 20 hours per week or have the entire family cut off of SNAP. States would have a strong financial incentive to cut children and adults off of SNAP under this provision as they would get half of the savings.
Neither of these "work requirement" proposals included additional funding for work slots or job training programs. Both would have cut people off SNAP regardless of their willingness to work or the local unemployment rate. With three jobseekers for every job, these provisions were particularly heartless.
Other House proposals that the Senate rejected and that were not included in the compromise version included:
- Eliminating categorical eligibility, meaning SNAP participants would have to spend all of their assets, impoverishing themselves, before they would be eligible for benefits.
- Drug testing of all SNAP applicants and recipients.
- Lifetime bars of persons convicted of certain felonies.
Over the next ten years, the Senate version of the Farm Bill made $4 billion in cuts and the House version made $39 billion in cuts. The compromise version cuts $8.6 billion.It is also worth considering that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, approved by the full House, would have cut $135 billion from SNAP over ten years.
The only cut included in the compromise version affects a program called “Heat and Eat.” The compromise bill tightens up on an element of SNAP benefit calculations. People with higher housing costs, including utility payments, get more SNAP. To promote administrative efficiency, participants who pay for their utilities separate from their rent receive a Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) rather than having to prove their actual utility costs. Under the “Heat and Eat” option used in 16 states, persons who received nominal LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits of as little as $1 qualified for the SUA, even if they did not actually have to pay any utility bills. The compromise Farm Bill requires that such persons receive at least $20 in monthly LIHEAP benefits to qualify for the SUA. Through this change in benefit calculations, 850,000 people will see their SNAP benefits cut by an average of $90 per month.
Anti-poverty advocates are split between those who urge a yes vote on the compromise Farm Bill since they think it is the best deal we are going to get, the Heat and Eat program is not defensible on policy grounds and therefore will be eliminated sooner or later, and it is too risky to postpone the Farm Bill reauthorization until next year when there will be a new and potentially even more hostile Congress. Other anti-poverty advocates urge a no vote since they oppose any cuts to the program and the Heat and Eat cut will have such a major impact on the affected families.
Whichever side you are on, it is important not to miss the larger point. SNAP is essential to the nutrition, health, and well-being of 47 million Americans, 45 percent of whom are children. Benefits were cut by seven percent across the board in November 2013. Every single recipient was affected, including children, the disabled, the elderly, veterans, and others. The Institute of Medicine found, before the seven percent cut, that SNAP benefits are insufficient for most families to purchase an adequate, healthy diet. A new study finds that low-income people have increased hypoglycemia-related hospital admissions at the end of the month because they are out of food.
In the face of this reality, SNAP benefits should be increased, not cut. However, one must also face the political reality of who controls the U.S. House of Representatives, and the degree of their hostility not just to SNAP but to every program that low-income people rely on.
The underpinning of the argument of those who would cut SNAP is that the program has experienced out-of-control growth. This argument entirely misses the point that SNAP is a counter-cyclical program that responded exactly as it should have to the loss of income and increased need from the Great Recession. SNAP participation has remained high during the economic recovery because that recovery has not reached low-income America—95 percent of all income growth from 2009-12 went to the wealthiest one percent and poverty has remained steady at 15 percent. Nevertheless, SNAP participation has now leveled off and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is on track to return to pre-recession levels.