WASHINGTON -- As many as three million Americans would be cut off from food assistance in the next year under a Republican proposal that cleared a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives early on Thursday.
The cuts, which are part of a broader farm bill, would reduce spending in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, by $16 billion over 10 years. The reduction is deeper than proposed SNAP cuts in a version of the farm bill that passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support.
Watching politicians fight over SNAP can be aggravating for people who rely on the program. Tanya Wells, 32, said her family of four receives the maximum monthly allotment of $668.
"We would love to not have to rely on the government for something as important as food, but we simply can not," she said. "We do hope to be off of the system soon, because it causes a lot of extra stress to see your only food source constantly on the line because of political battles."
Wells said she and her husband both lost their jobs near the end of 2007. She had worked as a logistics coordinator for an oil company while he had been a sheet metal mechanic -- and they made a decent living.
"We were comfortable middle class and all of the sudden the rug got pulled out from under us," Wells said.
Seeing few decent job prospects -- aside from a string of retail and temp office jobs -- they started pursuing bachelor's degrees in biology and neuroscience. Wells said her husband's college awarded him a grant that covers their rent and transportation.
Because of their low income, it's not likely Wells' food assistance would be threatened by the House farm bill.
The House Republican proposal would allow fewer people to automatically qualify for SNAP because of participation in another safety net program. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about half of current SNAP recipients are automatically eligible because they receive non-cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for things like bus fare and child care. States use "broad-based categorical eligibility" to cut down on paperwork.
With their proposal, Republicans want more potential SNAP recipients to have to meet minimum federal eligibility standards, limiting gross monthly income to no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty line -- $2,422 a month for a family of four -- and total resources to no more than $2,000. People who receive cash benefits from other programs will still be automatically eligible for SNAP.
"If you need food stamps, you should meet the criteria," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said on Wednesday.
Most food stamp recipients currently not subject to the means test would still meet the criteria, but not all. The CBO says imposing the test on more recipients would shave 1.8 million people from the program each year. That's about 4 percent of 2011's average monthly caseload of 45 million applicants. The White House has suggested that closer to three million fewer people would receive benefits. The change will reportedly save $11.5 billion over 10 years.
Dorothy Rosenbaum and Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive D.C. think tank, said the cuts will "cause significant hardship to several million low-income households," and that 280,000 children from low-income families will lose access to free school lunch.
Thanks mostly to the poor economy of the last several years, participation in SNAP has increased 70 percent since 2007. Republicans said the program's $80 billion cost will balloon further, but the CBO expects enrollment to level off in 2014. The average benefit for a household with children is $419 per month.
The House bill, like the one that passed the Senate, will save $4.5 billion by discouraging states from sending out nominal heating assistance checks to boost household SNAP benefits. Under a scheme called "Heat and Eat," some states send utility assistance checks worth $1 or $5 so that households would receive an automatic SNAP boost. Under these proposals, which require "Heat and Eat" checks to be at least $10, half a million households will receive $90 less per month.
Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee tried to fend off the cuts on Wednesday, saying the bill would increase hunger unnecessarily. "It has become fashionable to blame the poor for our budgetary problems," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. They offered to cede some ground and accept restrictions on "Heat and Eat" if Republicans would relent on categorical eligibility, but to no avail. Conservative Republicans on the committee wanted even deeper cuts, but did not get them.
Several Republicans stressed they were not out to let people go hungry, just to close down loopholes.
"I want poor people to have food," Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said. "I want children to eat well."