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Obama Administration Won't Delay Food Stamp Cuts, But States Can

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TOM VILSACK
President Barack Obama, surrounded by members of Congress, signs the farm bill, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. From left are, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Senate Agriculture Committee member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate Agriculture Committee member Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio and Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich. and Rep. Dan Kildee, | ASSOCIATED PRESS
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WASHINGTON -- Food stamp recipients affected by benefit cuts Congress passed in February will get no reprieve from the Obama administration.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture explained to states Wednesday that they'd have to implement the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts starting next week. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and 71 other Democrats had asked the department to postpone the cuts until the fall. No dice.

"Congress was clear in the farm bill that the reductions in SNAP benefits take effect not later than 30 days after enactment," a USDA spokeswoman told The Huffington Post in an email. "Given those limitations, USDA is providing States with as much flexibility as is reasonably possible under the law."

The good news for the 850,000 food stamp recipients potentially affected by the reductions is that their states have the power to stop them -- and so far New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania have announced plans to do just that.

"In these challenging and trying times, our most vulnerable families may not have been able to absorb another hit," a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday.

The cuts target the link between food stamps and the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor families pay utility bills. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have used a "heat and eat" scheme in which food stamp recipients automatically qualify for higher benefits by receiving nominal heating assistance checks as low as $1. The new law requires heating checks to be at least $20 for households to qualify for higher food stamp benefits. New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania have said they'll boost their heating checks to preserve the higher nutrition assistance.

Food stamp recipients using the "heat and eat" program in other states face an average benefit reduction of about $90. The typical SNAP household got $275 per month in 2013. The USDA told states this week they have to implement the change starting on Monday.

The Obama administration has had more flexibility to delay the implementation of some other unfavorable changes to safety net programs (and of course it has given itself leeway on some requirements of the Affordable Care Act, to much controversy). In February 2012, Republicans demanded that the federal unemployment insurance system be changed to allow states to drug test claimants. Democrats grudgingly agreed, and a new law said states could test claimants whose occupations regularly screen for drugs. The law left it up to the Department of Labor to determine which occupations do drug testing, but didn't give the department a deadline to issue guidance to states. Two years later, the Labor Department still hasn't done so.

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