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The fight over food stamps explained

House Republicans have dropped funding for food stamps and other nutritional programs from the Farm Bill -- historically about 80 percent of the funding's legislation.

It's a move that upsets decades of political compromise on agriculture policy. How did we get here? What does it mean? And why do food stamps matter?

Where does that money go? 

Here's a map of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) use in the United States:

It's also useful to look at where participation rates among eligible people are highest. Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia tend to have higher-than-average participation rates, according to the USDA. California, New Jersey, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming have lower-than-average rates.

Who is on food stamps? 

More than 47 million people in the United States now rely on food stamps. That's about 15 percent of the population, or one in seven Americans. Of those, 47 percent are children under 18, and 8 percent are seniors, according to the USDA.


USDA chart.

The number of eligible people who have actually applied for benefits has grown steadily in the past decade after declining throughout the 1990s.

Opposition to the House bill was led by the Congressional Black Caucus; 22 percent of food stamp recipients are African American, although African Americans make up 13 percent of the general population. Thirty-six percent of food stamp users are white, 10 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are Native American, 2 percent are Asian.

Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to report ever using food stamps, according to a Pew Research Center survey last December.

Why are food stamps in the Farm Bill anyway?

Politics. In the 1960s, food stamps were combined with the Farm Bill as a way to win urban Democratic votes for farm legislation that helped a declining rural population. (An earlier food stamp program, begun in 1939, died a few years later.) That's been the alliance ever since. As Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said in April: “[Food stamps] should continue to be included purely from a political perspective. It helps get the Farm Bill passed."

Why were they cut out? 

Disagreement over cuts and restrictions to food stamps is what killed the bill last month. The initial bill cut food stamp spending by $20.5 billion over the next 10 years. Conservatives said it wasn't enough and voted no; Democrats said it was too much and also voted no. In the wake of that failure, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) desperately needed to show that House Republicans could pass something. While conservatives would still like to see more cuts to the rest of the farm package, fiscal hawks are happy to see food and farm spending separate.

What happens now?

Food stamps won't disappear. If the House legislation became law, they would have to be funded separately through appropriations bills. Historically, the pairing of food stamps with the rest of the Farm Bill has brought the program support from the agriculture industry and from Republicans in rural states. That protection would be lost. House Republicans would be looking to make deeper cuts in the program.

But for that to happen, the Senate would have to accept the House legislation and President Obama would have to sign it. In fact, the White House has threatened to veto a farm bill without food stamps. And the Senate already passed legislation with more modest food stamp cuts. So we'll have to see what happens when the two chambers try to reconcile their legislation, as Brad Plumer explains.

What do people actually want? 

Nearly seven in 10 Americans, 69 percent, are open to at least minor reductions to food stamp programs, according to a January poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. That means more people would accept food stamp cuts than would support slashing education spending, Medicare or Social Security. But only 28 percent of poll respondents supported “major” cuts to food stamps, while 29 percent opposed all reductions.

Democrats, Republicans and independents are generally all open to some cuts, but Democrats are far more likely to oppose any cuts to the program than Republicans, at 43 to 13 percent. Independents are in between, unsurprisingly, at 24 percent.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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