Monday, January 27, 2014

Farm Bill conference proposes cutting $800 million per year in SNAP benefits

The Farm Bill conference committee report, released today, includes $800 million per year in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's largest anti-hunger program.

The conference report likely puts to rest several years of debate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which sought much steeper cuts, and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which sought less severe cuts. Both houses of Congress are likely to pass the compromise in the conference committee report this week.

The compromise is a disappointment to anti-hunger advocates. Program participants already in November faced the end of a temporary boost to program benefits. These new cuts are in addition to that change in November.

Yet, in a sense, the cuts proposed today were inevitable, and about as mild as program supporters could expect.

The actual mechanism for most of the cuts is a change to how utility costs are counted when benefits are calculated. Certain utility costs count as "excess shelter expenses," which are deducted from gross income during the computation of net income. SNAP benefits are based on net income (those with higher net income get smaller benefits), so eliminating a certain type of utility cost deduction amounts in practice to the same thing as a benefit cut.

Bob Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a leading public interest voice on nutrition assistance policy, this evening explained why this change to the utility cost computation was difficult to oppose:
The SNAP cut ... is a provision to tighten an element of the SNAP benefit calculation that some states have converted into what most people would view as a loophole. Specifically, some states are stretching the benefit formula in a way that enables them not only to simplify paperwork for many SNAP households, but also to boost SNAP benefits for some SNAP households by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur. Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way, and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend. Moreover, a future Administration could close off this use of the rules administratively, without any congressional action.
If I were king, the social safety net would be more generous. Our society would be a better society if we treated the poor and hungry as brothers and sisters. Who among us, in speaking of a poor or hungry brother or sister, would hesitate to provide resources before offering unsolicited advice? In several ways, I would make the social safety net more respectful of the dignity of its participants.

But I am not king. I am proud instead to live in our semi-functioning democracy. This Farm Bill compromise on nutrition assistance is about as good as I expected from the current Congress. The burden lies with program supporters first to persuade more voters of the value of these programs and then second to press for more generous program benefits.


B said...

How much of an impact will this have on the average SNAP participant? Do you have any idea how many people this will impact and/or how much each month?



Parke Wilde said...

Yes, according to CBPP estimates, the cut represents %1 percent of total SNAP benefits. The loss is concentrated in 850,000 households (3.7% of all SNAP households) in 17 states. These households had previously been benefiting from a utility deduction that effectively increased their benefits. The average benefit reduction for these households is $90 month -- enough to be a major hardship.

Parke Wilde said...

My mother (a seminary professor and long-time human rights advocate) is scolding me for this post by telephone! She says I was too easy on Democrats who struck a compromise on this important social justice issue.