House food stamp bill would shift burden for the poor to the states

September 20, 2013

Amanda Aubin and Cody Allison carry $70 of groceries, paid for with food stamps, to their apartment in Rhode Island. (Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post.)

The food-stamp bill passed by the House on Thursday is more than just a $39 billion funding cut, it would also shift some of the burden of caring for the poor to the states if it were ever to pass the Senate.

We wrote about it in today’s paper, but thought it was worth breaking out just the part on implications for the states for the blog. Here’s the wonky low-down (followed by a state-by-state breakdown from our amazing graphics team):

The House bill would cut overall SNAP spending by slightly more than 5 percent over the next decade, largely through two provisions that would significantly affect states.

The first accounts for roughly half the cuts and reinstates limits for many able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50. As a result, 1.7 million people would lose benefits next year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported Monday. Under federal law, those able-bodied adults are able to collect only limited benefits — up to three months over a three-year period — unless they work more than 20 hours per week or are in a job-training program.

In recent years, however, as the economic recession grew deeper, the vast majority of states have qualified for waivers on those limits. All but one qualified in fiscal 2011, and 46 states were eligible in fiscal 2012. Forty-four states qualified for fiscal 2013, which ends this month. The House provision would reduce the number of available waivers. Many states with Republican governors, such as Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Texas and Wisconsin, applied for waivers for all or parts of their states this year.

But not all states will continue to seek the waivers. In a statement earlier this month, Kansas announced that “in an effort to encourage employment over welfare dependency,” it would allow its waiver to expire at the end of the month. The action would drop an estimated 20,000 people from the program. Several states have indicated that they do not plan to seek renewal of their waivers, including Ohio, which announced its stance this month.

But while those states argue that reinstating the work requirements will encourage able-bodied, childless adults to get back to work, critics point to what has been a plodding and uneven recovery in jobs, marked by historically high rates of long-term unemployment.

“Really it’s a punishment for the status of being jobless,” says Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

To reduce the burden of figuring out who qualifies for benefits, states are allowed to determine a person’s eligibility for the program based in part on whether they qualify for other low-income benefits. The House measure passed Thursday would restrict that “categorical eligibility,” resulting in $11.6 billion in cuts, according to the CBO.

It may also mean higher costs to figure out who can receive aid. In May, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures argued that a similar proposal would increase administrative costs for already cash-strapped states.

“This limitation in categorical eligibility would increase state administrative costs in SNAP and significantly curtail state flexibility,” the NCSL wrote in the letter. By forcing states to determine eligibility separately, the House bill creates new costs they must bear, the organization argued.

 

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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