WASHINGTON -- In order to help pay for a series of high-priority spending bills in 2010, congressional Democrats raided future funding for food stamps, promising to put the money back before any cuts took effect.
Now that the cuts are around the corner, Democrats aren't talking about replacing the money. Instead, they're talking about more cuts. The big farm bill that passed the Senate on Thursday will reduce the deficit by $23.6 billion. Part of the savings comes from cutting an additional $4.5 billion from food stamps.
Democratic support for cutting food stamps -- formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- is a measure of how attitudes toward safety-net spending have changed over the past few years in Washington. It's also representative of how repeated Republican attacks on the program, in Congress and during the presidential campaign, have made it more vulnerable to cuts as its cost continues to increase.
"We thought it was bad two years ago and it's only getting more bleak," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, told The Huffington Post. When Democrats promised in 2010 they would restore food funding, Lower-Basch said at the time she feared they wouldn't find a way. "It didn't take a particularly good crystal ball," she said.
Last year, 45 million Americans received food stamps each month, costing the government $78 billion, with the average household receiving $287 per month. Participation in the SNAP program has increased 70 percent since 2007, but is expected to level off in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Most SNAP recipients qualify for benefits based on their participation in other safety net programs, while some must pass income and asset tests.
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Even without the cuts in the farm bill, SNAP beneficiaries will see less money come in, starting fall 2013. The Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, estimated that a family of four will receive $16 less per month starting in November 2013. (Thanks to food price inflation, the reduction is less severe than once expected -- in 2010, FRAC estimated benefits would shrink $59 a month.)
In 2010, Democrats took roughly $14 billion worth of funds that had been allocated for future SNAP benefits and used it to help pay for a child nutrition bill and a state assistance bill. The SNAP money had originally been put there by the 2009 stimulus bill, boosting the value of SNAP payments 13.6 percent. The plan had been to allow food price inflation to catch up to the increase sometime after 2015 so there would be no precipitous drop.
When they grabbed the money in 2010, several Democrats, including Sens. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said they'd try to find a way to prevent the cuts from taking effect. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), told the Columbus Dispatch Reid would find a solution and that "we need to talk to the White House on how to deal with this."
Meanwhile, GOP opposition to food stamps has grown, with House Republicans seeking to slash SNAP in order to shield the military from scheduled cuts next year.
The $4.5 billion cut in the farm bill is similar to a provision from a Republican proposal in the House. That measure targeted a program known as "Heat and Eat," which Republicans say is a loophole. "Heat and Eat" states can send nominal utility assistance checks as low as $1 to needy households, which in turn automatically qualifies them for a boosted utility allowance under SNAP. Fewer states would participate in "Heat and Eat" under the farm bill, because it will require them to send utility assistance checks worth at least $10 for the recipient household to get a SNAP boost.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, "Heat and Eat" will be able to continue in some states, but nearly 500,000 households a year will see their food stamps diminish by about $90 a month.
On Tuesday, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment to strike the Heat and Eat cut from the bill, but 22 Democrats helped a near-unanimous GOP defeat the amendment. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who shepherded the farm bill through the Senate as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, spoke out against the amendment.
"Here's what's going on: In a handful of states, they found a way to increase the SNAP benefits for people in their states by sending $1 checks in heating assistance to everyone who gets food assistance," Stabenow said on the Senate floor. "For the small number of states that are doing that, it is undermining the integrity of the program, in my judgment."
Stabenow fended off several Republican amendments that would have cut food stamp spending further. Cullen Schwarz, a spokeswoman for Stabenow, stressed that ending "Heat and Eat" will end misuse of the program.
"The Senate Farm Bill does not cut standard benefits, it only confronts misuse like lottery winners continuing to receive assistance or a small number of states giving $1 a year in heating assistance to people without a heating bill so the state can bring in benefits above the standard," Schwarz said in an email. "Senator Stabenow has vehemently opposed, and beaten, every Republican amendment that has sought to actually cut standard benefits."
Clarification: In discussing the income and assets criteria required to qualify for SNAP, an earlier version of this story failed to note that most SNAP recipients are eligible based on participation in other safety net programs.