WASHINGTON -- Food stamps kept 4 million Americans out of poverty last year, the government announced Tuesday in its annual update on income, poverty and health insurance coverage.
Coincidentally, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives this week are moving legislation that would reduce enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program by roughly the same number. According to a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, 3.8 million fewer Americans would receive food stamps next year if the GOP nutrition bill became law. The bill would trim SNAP spending by about 5 percent, saving $39 billion over 10 years.
The 3.8 million Americans who would lose benefits under the proposal would not all be thrown directly into poverty. One way the bill saves money is by requiring more applicants for food help to prove their assets few enough and their income low enough to qualify; currently, many SNAP beneficiaries qualify based solely on their participation in another means-tested program, such as Medicaid. The CBO says eliminating so-called "categorical eligibility" would deny benefits to 2.1 million people, most of whom presumably would not have incomes below the poverty line.
In 2012, the government considered a family of three earning less than $19,090 annually to be officially poor. Fifteen percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, lived in households below the poverty line last year, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. The poverty rate didn't budge from its 2011 level.
The Census Bureau doesn't count non-cash benefits like food stamps, rent subsidies and tax credits in its official measure of poverty, but it offers alternate estimates of how those programs would have changed the official count. "If SNAP benefits were counted as income, 4 million fewer people would be categorized as in poverty in 2012," the bureau said in Tuesday's report.
"This report shows that SNAP is working as an anti-poverty program as well as a nutrition program," Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the Center for Law and Social Policy said in an email. "It also shows that a key reason that the number of people receiving SNAP benefits has not declined since the official end of the recession is that the economy did not actually improve for most low- and medium-income households."
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a Tuesday blog post that 2012 saw the highest-ever number of people lifted from poverty by SNAP.
Republicans announced this week the House will vote Thursday on food stamps. The House bill in its present form is unlikely to become law, however, as anything that passes the lower chamber would have to be reconciled with the more moderate legislation that has already been approved by the Senate.
Of course, Republicans have no stated interest in throwing people into poverty. The office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is leading the GOP food stamps charge, put it this way: "This bill not only restores the integrity of this safety-net program, it will help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient."
This story has been updated to include comment from Cantor's office.