Lawmakers, Advocates Raise Concerns as SNAP Benefits Shrink

Food banks prepare for influx of families looking for help

Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:00am

Millions of low-income people will see their purchasing power fall Nov. 1, regardless of the outcome of a larger fight between Democrats and Republicans over future policies and spending levels for the nation’s largest domestic food aid program.

That’s due to the end of a temporary boost funded by stimulus money that Congress approved in the months after the financial meltdown of 2008. The assistance comes through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which now distributes benefits electronically but is still often referred to as food stamps.

Anti-hunger groups began raising the alarm about the impact of the drop-off several months ago. Food banks and pantries expect to see a surge in already rising requests for help once monthly SNAP benefits are automatically reduced.

“We’re expecting that demand will increase at our food banks, both with folks who are not current clients who have been getting by with SNAP and also with folks who are already coming to us,” said Lisa Davis, the government relations and advocacy leader for Feeding America, which maintains a network of 200 food banks nationally.

Under the upcoming change, a household of four receiving a monthly maximum SNAP benefit of $632 will lose $36 a month, or more than $300 in fiscal 2014. Overall, the Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP spending for fiscal 2014 will fall by $5 billion.

Some lawmakers continue to believe there is a way to fix the situation.

“The SNAP program is in jeopardy, which means children’s health is in jeopardy, and we should extend the ARRA-created benefits as well as to fully fund, not cut, the SNAP program,” Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., said during recent floor debate on a motion to instruct for the House farm bill. He was referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 economic stimulus measure.

Apart from the Nov. 1 cut, the House farm bill (HR 2642) proposes nearly $39 billion in spending reductions to the SNAP program over 10 years. SNAP is under scrutiny because of the 135 percent growth in benefits from 2007 to 2012. The CBO attributes 65 percent of the increase to the growth in recipients to more than 47 million Americans and 20 percent to the stimulus money used to raise the maximum benefit levels.

Forty-three Democrats have signed on to a bill (HR 3108) by Rep. John Conyers Jr. that would extend the stimulus boost. The legislation seems more symbolic than anything else. The Michigan Democrat filed the bill on Sept. 17, less than two weeks before the start of fiscal 2014. The legislation has been referred to the Agriculture Committee, which proposed policy changes and spending cuts of $20.5 billion over 10 years in its farm bill. The House eventually approved the much larger spending cuts to SNAP of nearly $39 billion over 10 years.

Davis said the loss of $36 a month in buying power may seem small to more affluent people. However, she said, “If you’re a low-income family and you’re struggling to get by on the dollars that you have, $36 is quite a lot and it will have impact. It’s several gallons of milk, cereal and a lot of the staples for families.”

The extra purchasing power for SNAP recipients always had an end date, but a Democrat-led Senate and House moved the expiration up by several years in 2010.

To meet budget requirements for offsets, lawmakers tapped $11.9 billion slated for fiscal 2014 through fiscal 2018 to help pay for keeping school teachers on the job and Medicaid payments flowing to the states (PL 111-226). This moved the expiration date to March 31, 2014.

Congress took another $2.5 billion from the extra money for the reauthorization and expansion of the school lunch and breakfast programs (PL 111-296). With that action, the end date for higher benefits became Oct. 31, 2013.

More than 100 Democrats held up passage of the school reauthorization in late 2010, until they obtained a promise from the Obama administration that it would somehow replace the stimulus money in the ensuing years.

But it seemed questionable that the White House could make good on the promise, even as it pledged to pursue additional funding. Democrats had lost control of the House in November 2010 and the incoming Republican majority’s priorities called for more military and defense-related spending, dialing back federal regulations and retooling domestic entitlement programs.

The upcoming reduction will mean immediate adjustments for many SNAP recipients. Anti-hunger groups say the loss of those billions means the higher benefits will end abruptly, rather than taper off — an approach that would have given recipients time to adjust their budgets. Several elderly SNAP beneficiaries called in to C-SPAN the week of Oct. 7 and said that they have received notices of the lower benefits.

In the longer term, SNAP recipients potentially face even bigger changes under the House farm bill.

The nutrition language in the House measure, if adopted, would end state flexibility on setting SNAP eligibility, move more people into state work-related activities under threat of losing benefits and prevent states from extending food benefits for able-bodied single childless adults in areas of high unemployment. The CBO estimates that the House policy changes could remove nearly 4 million people from SNAP in fiscal 2014. An average of 2.8 million would lose eligibility each year afterwards, the agency said. The Senate farm bill calls for $4 billion in SNAP reductions over 10 years, primarily by raising the threshold for utility deductions that help determine the amount of food benefits for which a household qualifies.

House and Senate negotiators plan to begin formal talks soon to hammer out differences on farm and nutrition programs between their respective bills.

Anti-hunger organizations say the changes proposed in the House bill and the scheduled end of the temporary boost in SNAP benefits would mean more poor families without food money and greater demand on charities.

“We are not a replacement for a strong federal safety net,” Davis said. “Last year, our entire network of 202 food banks provided just over 3 billion meals.”

Tom Nelson, president of Share Our Strength, said smaller benefits mean families will need advice on how to stretch dollars and not fall back on cheap foods that provide empty calories but little nutrition. Nelson said this will be particularly important for families with young children.

At a Capitol Hill briefing in September, Share Our Strength and several nonprofit groups called for continued funding for SNAP education, a nutrition program designed to work with low-income families on food choices.

“For some folks it sounds like that’s sort of nice. No, it’s a necessity when you have to stretch the dollars to get the most that you can at the best quality that you can,” Nelson said.

Under the House farm bill, funding for state grants under the nutrition education and obesity education program would be reduced by $274 million over 10 years.