The Washington Post

Why the food stamp cuts in the farm bill affect only a third of states

Rebecka Ortiz offers a sample of pasta to daughter Sariah, age 3, that was being given away at the store where she was using her food stamps. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

When the president signs the farm bill on Friday, he’ll be enacting a huge set of policies including an $8.6 billion cut to food stamps over the next decade. But the cuts are concentrated: they will only affect individuals in about a third of states and Washington, D.C.

The reason is that it closes what many consider a loophole utilized in some states — one which hunger advocates argue is necessary in light of underfunding. CBO projects it affects about 850,000 households, or 4 percent of beneficiaries of food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Total SNAP spending had been projected to be $764 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s baseline estimate. The $8.6 billion is just a fraction of that, but it’s impact is limited to 15 states.

Here’s how the loophole, known as “heat and eat,” is used in those states, according to the CBPP:

Food-stamp eligibility is based on a household’s disposable income. If it’s low enough, you qualify. But to calculate disposable income, the state takes your total income and subtracts some allowable deductions for essentials. Since things like rent and utilities are considered household necessities, they’re subtracted. To calculate how much a potential food stamp recipient spends on utilities, states used to collect multiple utility bills from each and calculate the average. To streamline things, they came up with a standard utility allowance. Prove that you — not your landlord — pay for your utilities (furnish just one bill as proof), and the state assumes you pay some predetermined amount, deducting it from your total income.

To make things even easier, Congress added another way to streamline proof of utility payments. If a household is getting heating or cooling assistance through a separate program known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, it can be assumed that the household is responsible for paying utilities. If it’s responsible for paying utilities, it qualifies for the state utility deduction.

Here’s the problem the farm bill seeks to fix: recently, some states began providing nominal amounts of LIHEAP assistance — as little as $1 a year — meaning some households got credit “for utility costs they don’t actually pay,” according to CBPP President Robert Greenstein. As a result, they got more SNAP benefits than they would have otherwise. The farm bill fixes that by only allowing households to get the utility deduction if they receive at least $20 of such assistance.

Administrators of LIHEAP routinely say that the funds they receive don’t even come close to covering all the people who need it. The same goes for the SNAP benefits, according to hunger advocates. So, in their eyes, it’s a necessary loophole. The Food Research Action Center, for example, argues that the practice increases SNAP benefits “to more realistic levels.” CBPP’s Greenstein agrees that that funding is too low, but sees it as better than the alternatives. An earlier House bill would have cut five times the amount from food stamps.

“There’s no denying that the 4 percent of beneficiaries who would be affected are low-income people who would face a significant benefit reduction,” Greenstein wrote. “But congressional rejection of the agreement because of this provision would risk future harm to far larger numbers of low-income people who rely on SNAP.”

At least 15 states and D.C. have been known to use the loophole, according to a May 2013 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which cited June 2012 Agriculture department data. Those “heat and eat” states are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin. Some lists compiled by non-profits lists add or subtract a state or two from that lineup.

Read more:

FRAC fact sheet

CBPP’s Greenstein on the cuts

Feeding America

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow’s fact sheet

The Washington Post’s story on the bill

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debate Thursday. Get caught up on the race.
What to expect tonight
Tonight's debate is likely to focus on the concerns of African American and Latino voters. Clinton has focused in recent days on issues like gun control, criminal-sentencing reform, and the state of drinking water in Flint, Mich. Sanders has been aggressively moving to appeal to the same voters, combining his core message about economic unfairness with his own calls to reform the criminal-justice system.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
Clinton in New Hampshire: 2008 vs. 2015
Hillary Clinton did about as well in N.H. this year as she did in 2008, percentage-wise. In the state's main counties, Clinton performed on average only about two percentage points worse than she did eight years ago (according to vote totals as of Wednesday morning) -- and in five of the 10 counties, she did as well or better.
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.