What you should know about the food stamps debate

Jun 27, 2013

Credit Beautiful Lily/Flickr

  The U.S. House defeated the farm bill last week, after the Senate passed its version of the bill in early June. Both bills include about $500 billion in spending over five years. Few pieces of legislation can produce such sharp divisions, even by Washington standards—but few could have such immediate, significant impact on so many Americans.

Despite its “farm bill” moniker, the largest portion of the legislation funds SNAP, the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. SNAP makes up about 80 percent of the bill’s cost. Both the Senate and House have proposed cuts to the program, but lawmakers will have to agree on the size of SNAP cuts in order to pass a full farm bill this summer.

In a special series of joint broadcasts, our partners at KCUR in Kansas City and Iowa Public Radio are focusing on the farm bill. On Tuesday, the broadcast looked at the SNAP program.

Here are some of the key points:

The House wants deeper SNAP cuts

As it sits currently, the farm bill proposed in the House has a $2 billion reduction in SNAP each year over a 10-year period. That amount is five times more than the cuts passed in the Senate, which would amount to about $400 million annually.

Last year, Congress couldn’t agree on new farm bill legislation, thanks in large part to different cuts to the SNAP program. Lawmakers punted on the bill, extending it for one year. Amy Mayer, our reporter based at Iowa Public Radio, attributed the extension to politics and proximity to the November elections.

“The difference between House Republicans and House (and Senate) Democrats was vast and a bridge that people running for reelection and supporting their various candidates didn’t want to – those were waters they didn’t want to wade into,” Mayer said. 

This year, without a presidential election, there seems to be more optimism that Congress can reach a compromise.

Vincent Smith, a professor in the agricultural economics department at Montana State University and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said cutting the program is difficult.

“Food stamps are a really important part of the safety net for the very poorest people in the country, and while they could be reformed to make it more efficient, draconian cuts are not a good idea,”  Smith said.

Some Republican lawmakers defend the cuts by saying the food stamps program has expanded too quickly and is currently too large – the program reached record-high enrollment in 2012. In an era of increased belt-tightening, many see the billions of dollars spent on SNAP as ripe for trimming. Others argue that SNAP is ripe with fraud. Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the cost of this fraud amounts to $750 million annually.

SNAP costs are rising

In 2012, the cost of SNAP totaled $80 billion, according to the USDA’s annual summary. The cost of the taxpayer-supported program has more than doubled since the farm bill last passed through Congress in 2008. In 2008, Mayer said 67 percent of the farm bill allocated funding toward domestic nutrition program. In 2010, 80 percent of its spending went toward supplemental nutrition.

As part of its effort to curb spending, both the House and Senate bills are looking at the eligibility requirements for the SNAP program.

“Somebody who lost their job and doesn’t have a lot of savings would perhaps want to apply for SNAP,” Mayer said. “There is going to be some discussions about whether, if that person owns a house would that make their eligibility different? Would they need to sell something like a car to be eligible?”

Living on SNAP is tough

Nearly 47 million Americans use the SNAP program. Regina Oberman, a mother from St. Joseph, Mo., said she first applied for food stamps 25 years ago when she was a single mother. She described herself as a working person, but said she occasionally fell in a gap.

“I broke my leg, lost my job, couldn’t get disability, couldn’t get unemployment because I wasn’t unemployable,” Oberman said. “So we were down to $350-a-month to try to pay rent, feed us, utilities, car payments, all those things.”

In 2010, Oberman once more fell in that gap when she and her husband lost their jobs. Before they applied for SNAP, the Oberman’s were making $21 per hour. Only Regina was able to qualify for unemployment, a service that paid the family the equivalent of $5.65 per hour.

The family was approved for SNAP benefits and started receiving $160 per month, but Oberman said that was barely enough to live on and she had to depend on local food banks and church pantries to fill in the gaps. Second Harvest, a community food bank in St. Joseph, Mo., serves 19 counties in northwest Kansas and northeast Missouri. Tamara Grub, the food bank’s chief operating officer, painted a bleak picture of the social safety net.

“If there are cuts to SNAP, the food bank system and local charitable system has to pick up that slack and that can’t happen,” Grub said. “There are not enough resources to meet that need. That’s where SNAP works.”

Grub said Oberman’s story is similar to the other 51,000 food insecure people in the Second Harvest region. But Grub says Second Harvest is only able to serve 15,000 of those individuals.

The current farm bill legislation expires on Sept. 30.