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Food Stamps In Crosshairs Of Republicans' Plan To Save Military

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WASHINGTON -- The latest Republican plan to reconcile the budget and preserve defense spending extracts even deeper cuts from programs to help the poor and Americans still reeling from the recession.

Although spending levels for the budget were set in the Budget Control Act passed last summer in the deal to raise the nation's debt limit, Republicans are pushing ahead with another plan that cuts more while trying to prevent the beginning of $600 billion in cuts over 10 years to the growth of the defense budget.

They are doing so because the Super Committee, which was supposed to find $1.2 trillion in cuts on which everyone could agree, failed, leaving the slashing up to a pre-agreed sequestration plan that extracts half the savings from the military.

Unless Congress acts, the sequestration begins at the start of 2013. Democrats in the Senate are arguing that the Budget Control Act counts as a budget, and therefore they won't take up debate on a spending plan for 2013, much less address Rep. Paul Ryan's House budget resolution.

So instead, the House has embarked on a seldom-used reconciliation process. Its aim is to have at hand an alternative to the sequestration on the theory that the Senate will not want to allow the defense cuts either, and won't have its own plan.

In a memo sent to members Wednesday instructing them how to write their reconciliation bill, Republicans picked a number of targets, including extracting $80 billion from federal workers and $44 billion from health care. In all, it identifies $78 billion to cut in 2013, and details around $300 billion over 10 years.

But the memo spends the most time targeting the exploding cost of food stamps, on which more Americans rely than ever, at greater expense to the government than ever before.

Each month during fiscal 2011, an average of 45 million mostly poor Americans received benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at a cost of $78 billion to the federal government. Last year's SNAP participation represented a 70 percent increase from 2007, and the highest enrollment the program has ever seen. In that time, the cost of the program more than doubled.

The Congressional Budget Office, which issued a report on SNAP last week, expects enrollment to keep going up through 2014 before it levels off.

Two-thirds of the growth in the cost of the program was a result of increased eligibility -- and therefore increased enrollment thanks to the crashing economy. A fifth of the higher cost came from a boost in benefits provided by President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus bill. Rising food prices and lower incomes among enrollees -- requiring larger benefits -- accounted for the rest.

Republicans want to take away the stimulus boost this year, saving $5.9 billion over 10 years. They note that Democrats were first to raid the extra stimulus funding for SNAP in order to pay for other bills, including a child nutrition bill that was a priority of first lady Michelle Obama's. Democrats promised to put the money back, but that seems unlikely.

Another way Republicans want to save money on food stamps is by restricting automatic eligibility for those already qualified for another program.

Three quarters of households receiving food stamps were "categorically eligible" in 2010, according to the CBO, meaning they qualified because they received benefits from programs like Supplemental Security Income or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, informally known as welfare. Households that are categorically eligible are often subject to less stringent means testing for food stamps. And some households are eligible for SNAP because of "broad-based" categorical eligibility, meaning they receive non-cash welfare benefits that can be as insignificant as a pamphlet.

That policy borders on fraud, according to the GOP. In their proposal document, Republicans describe their plan to restrict broad-based eligibility under a header suggesting the change would be one way to "stop fraud."

"It's really misleading to call this fraud because people are eligible -- no one's doing anything fraudulent," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said in an interview.

Many households receiving food stamps because of broad-based eligibility could still pass SNAP income and asset tests -- states have their own rules, but the federal minimum standard is income no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty line and no more than $2,000 worth of assets -- but some would not. Restricting broad-based eligibility would cut off 1.8 million people per year and save $11.7 billion over 10 years. The savings would be higher, but some of the savings are lost because the change would increase administrative costs.

Republicans also want to shut down "Heat and Eat," which they describe as a loophole. It allows states to boost SNAP enrollees' benefit amounts if they're receiving heating assistance. About 16 states are abusing the interaction, Republicans say, by sending SNAP recipients tiny $1 or $5 checks under the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program in order to boost federal food stamp benefits. Cutting off "Heat and Eat" would save $14.3 billion over 10 years.

Advocates for the poor, see the cuts not only as an attack on poor people, but as extremely short-sighted. A key reason that advocates have pushed broad-based eligibility for years is that it cuts down on overlapping workloads for the administering agencies, and helps get people -- especially the working poor -- access to aid that they deserve under law. That aid often becomes inaccessible to people who don't have the time or knowledge to deal with multiple bureaucracies.

"The reason that it was put in place was because there were so many households who weren't able to meet the paperwork requirements, or frankly, because so many stressed caseworkers weren't necessarily helping clients get the full benefit of the value that they could," said Stacy Dean, a spokesperson for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, referring to the Heat and Eat provisions. She also argued that ending the broader cross-eligibility standards would only mean local governments have to hire more people to do the same work while making it harder for people to navigate the system.

"It's redundant and wasteful, and it's just a barrier to eligible, needy people getting the benefits for which they are eligible," Dean said.

While SNAP rolls are expected to start falling after 2014, the military budget that the GOP is striving to protect will not, even with the sequester. According Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, if the sequester remains in place, the military budget will still grow by nearly 20 percent over the next decade.

With defense spending continuing to grow, advocates for the poor, like Dean, see something else in deep cuts aimed at the less fortunate.

"We believe the Ryan budget is an assault on the safety net," she said.