IN CASE you've been worried about how the Senate is going to pay for its new gymnasium -- which we get around to below -- you'll be relieved to know that both houses of Congress have more than met their quotas for savings from food and farm programs.
Part of those savings will come from a new round of cuts in food stamps -- the only kind of basic federal aid that is open to all the poor. The Senate proposes to cut another $2.5 billion from food stamps over the next three years, while the House has contented itself with a mere $1.3 billion in cuts.
Some of these savings will be gained by such high-minded measures as rounding benefits down (never up) to the nearest dollar and freezing allowances for shelter and child-care costs. The Senate proposal will also save big money by further delays in adjusting benefits for rises in food prices. All of this will hit very hard on the poor, since cash welfare benefits have fallen far behind inflation in recent years, and the food stamp program itself has already been subjected to a 21-month delay in cost-of-living adjustments as part of last year's budget cuts.
As far as Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms is concerned, these cuts don't go anywhere near far enough. He'd like to get rid of food stamps altogether. As a first step in that direction, he added a provision to the Senate bill that would encourage states to accept a cash block grant instead of running a food stamp program. The states would have to spend the money for purposes arguably related to nutrition, but there is nothing to stop them from using it to replace cash welfare payments they would otherwise have to pay for themselves and pocketing the savings.
Concern that at least some states would be tempted to abandon the program led most governors to oppose a similar proposal in the administration's first version of its "new federalism" swap. Since that time the administration has accepted the notion that assuring at least a minimum level of food consumption is a basic federal responsibility -- one that should not be left subject to the vagaries of each locality's willingness or ability to pay for the program as local economic conditions change.
No doubt the food stamp program has its share of fraud and abuse. So does almost every other program -- domestic, military or foreign -- operated by every level of government. And few of these programs have the food stamp program's solid record of achievement. In future years as the senators take a dip in their pool or go for a rubdown, they might also find comfort in knowing that the poor, whatever their other miseries, at least need not starve. That's something for the conferees to think about as they mark up the final food stamp bill.