Food stamp funds are about to get cut. Twice.
The war on public assistance has hit Pennsylvanians hard since Gov. Corbett came into office in 2011. A little over a year ago, he introduced a food stamp asset test, which would seek to make sure those Pennsylvanians receiving SNAP benefits do not have too much money in their savings or checking accounts. Earlier this year, in April, very little fraud was actually found with regard to the asset test. And that’s been the case nationally.
Many of the state’s Democrats cried foul when Corbett set the policy without input from the legislature. But at the federal level, cutting down on food stamp usage is quickly becoming a bipartisan issue, one that can be seen by the naked eye as the federal farm bill rides its way through the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. And if you watch carefully, it’s playing out the way these things often do: Democrats propose cutting government money to the big players (farm subsidies), Republicans propose cutting assistance to the poor (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits), and they meet somewhere in the middle.
Except in this case, the middle is between a rock and hard place.
The Senate opened debate on the farm bill earlier this week with some back-patting and a brief warning from the Obama administration.
Prime sponsor Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said the bill would “create jobs, cut taxpayer subsidies and reduce the deficit.” And he’s at least partially right. The $955 billion bill would cut federal spending by up to $23 billion over the next decade, according to estimates. Which is good, if you care about the deficit, which Republicans do now.
For their part, the Obama administration recently called for a three percent cut in the crop insurance program and wants to cut farm subsidies by $37.8 billion, which is more than what the Senate Bill would slash (theirs is at $24.4 billion).
Most notably, though, is the way the Senate bill, led by Reid and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and others, is looking to cut food stamp funding—by a lot. It calls for slashing SNAP’s budget by $4.1 billion over the next decade, which Obama is against.
“The administration strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the president’s budget,” according to a White House statement released Monday. “SNAP helps families put food on the table, while also benefiting farm and rural economies.”
For his part, Sen. Casey supported an amendment to the bill, proposed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), that would have restored the $4 billion cut to the program.
Adding insult to injury, there’s already a major, inevitable SNAP cut scheduled for this coming fall. See, the 2009 Recovery Act added a temporary boost to the program to deal with the then-staggering rate of unemployment and need for the program. That program ends by law on Nov. 1, 2013.
Official numbers regarding the Recovery Act cuts won’t come out until sometime this summer, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a family of three will see a $20 to $25 cut per month—about $240 to $300 per year.
Individuals receiving food stamp benefits will lose $8 of benefits per month—which means the average weekly food stamp recipient will go down from $35 per week to $33 before the farm bill is passed.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of the modern food stamp program where everybody is going to see a benefit reduction, across the board, overnight,” says Julie Zaebst, interim executive director at the Hunger Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “I am dreading November 1st, when I know our phone is going to be ringing off the hook with folks who are saying, ‘How did my benefits go down overnight? My circumstances haven’t changed. I’m still earning the same amount of money … and all the sudden I have $25 less to buy food for my family.’”
And if all that sounds like an unsustainable plan to you, just avoid reading about the U.S. House’s version of the farm bill. You’ll have a sad. The House holds a Republican majority, many of whom are members of the Tea Party. Their priorities and approval rating remain extremely unpopular, which likely has something to do with the Republican members of the body receiving a minority of votes in the last election, but still keeping their majority of members due to state legislatures re-writing districts in their own political favor. Their version of the bill creates something called “categorical eligibility,” an extreme form of the food stamp asset test Gov. Corbett put into place last year. Corbett’s asset test restricted Pennsylvania families with $5,500 in assets and individuals over 60 years with $9,000 in assets from receiving SNAP benefits.
“I absolutely reject the level of cuts and the way this is done in the House,” Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, said last week. “They eliminate something called categorical eligibility, which we’ve now voted down either two or three times on the Senate floor on a bipartisan basis. It came up in committee this week, it was voted down on a bipartisan basis. So that policy does not have support in the U.S. Senate. I won’t support it in conference, and so we will look for ways that we can continue to provide savings by tackling abuse or misuse.”
Zaebst calls categorical eligibility the “most egregious” section of either version of the farm bill. “What the House is proposing is taking every state back to the federal minimum [in assets]: $2,000 dollars for most households and $3,250 for elder and disabled households,” she says. “That’s not just a benefit reduction, but a total loss of benefits, overnight, for about 131,000 people in Pennsylvania.”
Though it’s a Republican idea, categorical eligibility would essentially strip states of their rights to figure out the most efficient way to give citizens a hand as it pertains to sustenance.
Debate on the issue has revealed three degrees of wing-nuttery. Rep. Steven Fincher (R-TN), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, accused the federal government of stealing “other people’s money” while funding SNAP (degree one). He then invoked the Bible in his offense against sustenance assistance to the poor, noting that book says “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (degree two). And finally, Fincher told Memphis residents this past weekend what it truly means to be a Christian: “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country” (degree three).
That’s what poor families are dealing with.
According to a summary of the as-yet-amended bill provided by the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, many of the cuts to SNAP are meant to cut down on misuse. Things like preventing lottery winners from receiving food assistance, preventing college students from misusing benefits and attempting to crack down on trafficking are mainstays of the Democrats’ idea pool. Stabenow says most of the cuts would come from these preventative measures.
“We made sure our food assistance programs are accountable, and we made sure our changes would not remove one single needy family,” she said on Monday. “It’s not about hurting folks. It’s about making sure there is not abuse, and that is what we address.”
And that seems somewhat reasonable, until you see that misuse of SNAP is an old wives’ tale.
If you look at what happened in Pennsylvania, where the asset test was put back into place last year, you see very little evidence of abuse has surfaced. But nearly 4,000 households lost or were denied benefits in the commonwealth over the last 12 months, according to the Department of Public Welfare, because they had too many financial resources. At the same time, according to an Inquirer story from earlier this month, about 111,000 households were denied benefits because they couldn’t provide the proper documentation to prove they didn’t have too many resources for the asset test.
The Department of Public Welfare made getting food stamps very complicated in Pennsylvania. And many families deserving of benefits may have been denied them due to the application process or to perceived fraud.
Which is weird. Because the Center for Budget and Priority Policies found that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars in SNAP go to the elderly, disabled or members of working households—not people who sit on their butts and use their SNAP cards to trade government-subsidized Cheetos for crack cocaine.
SNAP error rates, according to U.S. News and World Report, which include benefit overpayments and underpayments, are at an “all time low”—just 3 percent of benefits have gone to ineligible households or “exceeded the allowable benefit for eligible households,” which is, more often than not, an honest mistake made by computer programmers or other government employees, not lazy able-bodied drug abusers.
Lawmakers have continued making their case against the welfare state, often creating solutions to nonexistent problems.
Such as earlier this month, when Pennsylvania state Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill) wrote a co-sponsorship memo saying he plans to introduce some time-and-again legislation that would force those on public assistance to receive a drug test. “This is money which is, in many cases, being wasted on those who choose not to work and spend state benefits on illegal and illicit drugs,” he said, while failing to note that a pilot program in his own county found that just 2.19 percent of those on assistance tested actually tested positive for drugs.
His call wasn’t all that different from Gov. Corbett’s claim that Pennsylvania’s high unemployment rate is based, at least in part, on our citizens’ propensity to get high, like, all the time. A claim no one could back up.
Any way you slice it, the 47 million people who receive food stamp benefits (including 467,556 Philadelphians) are almost exclusively poor and sober. And, according to the Economic Research Center at the USDA, for every dollar spent on SNAP, $1.79 goes back into the economy.
So, why do working people with clear heads often have to go on food stamps? Mostly because of low minimum wages often (but not exclusively) pushed for by Republicans and lobbied for by big-business groups. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 per hour nationally for 22 years because the National Restaurant Association lobbied for just that in the 1990s.
Tipped workers—often those in the restaurant industry—are more likely to be on food stamps than the rest of society because of these low wages. They’re more likely to go to the emergency room for their primary care, and 80 percent of them are unable to pay for it. If you follow me here, or read some of my recent reporting, you’re aware that those tipped workers rarely, if ever, receive paid sick days off, either. And when it comes to these basic needs of the working poor, the result is always the same: You foot the bill when you pay taxes.
Such critics of the so-called “entitlement society” rarely take into account that they help create it by railroading pushes for higher workers’ wages and denying any and all efforts for universal health care.
As it happens, according to Forbes, only one in six SNAP households nationally are non-working households without kids or an elderly family member. Those who can’t make ends meet and are forced to collect government subsidies often work. And this is by design—which makes cutting such benefits that much more reprehensible.
As part of the effort to highlight the cuts to food stamps in the farm bill and the automatic cuts in November, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) has decided to go on a $3-per-day food stamp challenge. “I’m taking the #SNAP challenge this week to learn firsthand what it means to live on the food stamp budget: $3 per day,” he wrote on Twitter Monday.
Several politicians have done the challenge during the Great Recession, including Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) and Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D-NJ). All have had similar experiences, noting they almost didn’t make it to the end, and their hunger made them miserable.
I took and wrote about the food stamp challenge this winter. It sucked. I can say that there’s nothing fun or entitled—whatever that means—about eating on $35 per week (the rules for the challenge then were eating on $5 per day). The grand total got me a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, milk, butter, cheese, oatmeal, bananas and coffee. That’s it. And by the end of it, I was rationing my meals and coffee, knowing I’d need the bare minimum to fuel myself for my next day of work.
But unlike most people who benefit from SNAP, I was able to go back to the grocery market on Monday evening and pile up on my usual stockpile of daily meals and snacks.
Far too many others aren’t so lucky. And I shudder to think about the social repercussions if the government goes out of its way to rip food from the hands and mouths of those among us who live hand to mouth.
Note: The headline of this article has been updated.
Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso