States finding ways to skirt cuts in food stamps, frustrating congressional goals

March 9

Congress last month passed a revamp of agriculture and food policy that was supposed to save the U.S. government $8.6 billion in food-stamp costs over a decade.

That may not happen, though, now that some states are finding a way to avoid the cuts.

New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are triggering extra nutrition spending by adding money to a home-heating subsidy tied to increased food-stamp aid. The move feeds needy families while thwarting spending-
reduction goals.

Deficit watchers say they are disappointed, while anti-hunger activists are lobbying other states to do the same. If more follow, the federal government would have to spend much of the $8.6 billion it planned to save, as states reduce spending on other programs to meet the new mandate.

“Some states will be able to do it, some states will not be able to. No one knows for how long they’ll be able to do it,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “They have jumped into the breach where the federal government abdicated its responsibility.”

Federal spending on food stamps — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — has more than doubled in the past five years, with most of the money spent at retailers. The program cost a record $79.9 billion in fiscal 2013, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year that Americans spend on groceries.

Some of that food aid is tied to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known by its acronym, LIHEAP.

Under the previous farm law, states that gave residents as little as $1 a year in home-heating assistance — a move nicknamed “heat-and-eat” — could qualify that person’s household for an average of $1,080 in additional food stamps annually from the U.S. government.

About 15 states and the District of Columbia did just that, catching the attention of lawmakers who sought savings through the farm bill. “States were gaming the system,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said last month.

The new law raises to $20 a year the home-heating aid needed for a household to get extra food-stamp money. The idea is that most of those 15 states will stop qualifying residents for the food aid and save the U.S. government money.

That’s not happening in New York. The state said it raised home-heating spending by $6 million, triggering an additional $457 million a year in federal food-stamp spending.

Lawmakers who supported even deeper cuts to food stamps than those eventually included in the farm law have criticized states for using the rules to erode savings.

“We didn’t expect that, or we would’ve written it in the language to prohibit it,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees food stamps and nutrition aid. The move, though legal, is “perverse, just perverse,” he said.

States pushing to maintain the aid call it necessary.

“These federal cuts have made it harder for our state’s most vulnerable residents to put food on the table. The state has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said in a statement Feb 25. “New York is stepping up to help families in need.”

Connecticut is spending an extra $1.4 million to preserve federal food-stamp money for about 50,000 households, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) said the day before Cuomo’s announcement. Pennsylvania said Wednesday that it will spend $8 million to preserve $300 million in food-stamp funding for up to 400,000 families.

The moves are encouraging in their commitment to helping the hungry, said Ellen Vollinger, a food-stamp lobbyist with the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.

At the same time, it’s frustrating that states may have to divert resources from other necessary programs to counteract congressional budget cuts, she said.

“This was always budget-
driven,” Vollinger said. “Discussions in Washington can be academic, but $90 a month for needy families is a real number. It’s shifting a burden to the states, and it’s doubtful how many of them will be able to do it.”

Vollinger said anti-hunger activists are lobbying states affected by mandates in the new law to increase their home-heating assistance.

Recently, 16 senators and 81 House members wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeking a delay in the food-stamp cuts. The agency, in a memo to states on Wednesday, said it cannot put off the reductions.

Meanwhile, budget watchdogs who supported the cuts are not pleased, either.

“True reform would have included stringent work requirements for food-stamp eligibility,” said Andy Roth, government affairs vice president with Club for Growth, a Washington small-
government advocacy group. “Even better, devolve the program back to the states” as block grants, which would end the temptation to exploit quirks in federal law, he said.

About 47 million Americans got food stamps in November, the latest month for which data were available, the USDA said Friday.

— Bloomberg News

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