What to expect when you’re expecting cuts to food stamps


(Thomas Hawk/FLICKR)

The Senate farm bill tightens enforcement measures to prevent waste and errors in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under a separate provision, it also cuts $4.5 billion in food stamps to families that receive a nominal amount of heating aid — typically $1 to $5 per year— to so they can qualify for higher assistance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the latter will reduce benefits for about 500 million families by an average of $90 a month.

The changes are meant to appease Republican concerns about food stamp abuse and waste, while also giving Democrats more flexibility on farm subsidies, the other major focus of the farm bill.

Just how prevalent are food stamp abuse and waste? In 2010, SNAP’s payment accuracy rate averaged 96.2 percent nationwide. That’s an all-time high for the program and includes both under- and overpayment. The error rate drops below 3 percent for overpayment alone.

Egregious fraud happens so infrequently that stronger enforcement being proposed for SNAP isn’t even expected to result in meaningful savings to taxpayers, and it wasn’t scored by the Congressional Budget Office, notes Stacy Dean, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The proposed cuts target food-stamp beneficiaries who also receive help for heating their homes. Currently, poor Americans who receive just $1 in home-energy assistance can qualify for up to $1,560 in food aid in the District of Columbia and a handful of other states. House Republicans have decried the provision as a wasteful loophole and want to eliminate it. Senate Democrats have instead proposed that beneficiaries must receive at least $10 in heating aid to qualify for food stamps through the program.

Not all Democrats are on board: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), for instance, has argued that poor families need more help than the farm industries that are also part of the same bill. She has proposed restoring the $4.5 billion in cuts by reducing funds for crop insurance.

But many Republicans don’t think the bill goes far enough: Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), for instance, wants to block-grant the program, while Sen. Pete Sessions (Tex.) wants to eliminate the heating-aid “loophole” entirely. These are among the GOP concerns that are stalling the farm bill in the Senate right now. And even if it passes the Senate, the House similarly wants more drastic reforms to the program. So in terms of cutbacks and changes to food stamps, the Stabenow-Roberts bill is probably just the beginning.

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