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Why Is a Senate Democrat Agreeing to Another $8 Billion in Food Stamp Cuts? | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

Why Is a Senate Democrat Agreeing to Another $8 Billion in Food Stamp Cuts?

Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, listens to testimony from witnesses in hearings in 2012 (Reuters/Gary Cameron). 

On the same day that President Obama eloquently described his vision of an economy defined by economic mobility and opportunity for all, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow was busy cutting a deal with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas to slice another $8 to $9 billion from food stamps (SNAP), according to a source close to the negotiations.

“One study shows that more than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives,” said President Obama. “Think about that. This is not an isolated situation.… That’s why we have nutrition assistance or the program known as SNAP, because it makes a difference for a mother who’s working, but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids.”

Indeed it does, but the chairwoman consistently fails to get the memo.

There are currently 47 million Americans who turn to food stamps to help make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 72 percent are in families with children; and one-quarter of SNAP participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. Further, 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 annually for a family of three).

Despite the fact that the Institute of Medicine demonstrated the inadequacy of the SNAP benefit allotment, and that a child’s access to food stamps has a positive impact on adult outcomes, the program was just cut by $5 billion on November 1. The average benefit dropped from $1.50 to $1.40 per meal. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s previous proposal to cut yet another $4 billion from SNAP would have led to 500,000 losing $90 per month in benefits, the equivalent of one week’s worth of meals.

“That was the first time in history that a Democratic-controlled Senate had even proposed cutting the SNAP program,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The willingness of some Senate Democrats to double new cuts to the program…is unthinkable.”

The president recognized in a very personal way the need for a SNAP program that protects families from severe hardship.

“When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry,” he said.

In contrast, Berg tells of a mother he recently met who now sees this country turning away from her and her children.

“I recently met a mother of two, trying to advance herself and her family, by working her way through college,” said Berg. “After November 1st, she lost $46 worth of groceries a month, which equals at least thirty fewer meals for her family.”

It seems she and her kids are about to absorb another hit.

“These SNAP cuts will be devastating to families across the nation,” said Dr. Mariana Chilton, co-principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch, a research organization analyzing the effects of economic conditions and public policy on children in emergency rooms and clinics around the country. “Not only will families lose significant SNAP dollars—which will make it harder for them to feed their kids and also reduce their children’s nutrient intakes—but it will also cause major health problems for children, increased hospitalizations for very young kids, and greater need for psychosocial and mental health services for school aged kids.”

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President Obama perfectly captured what it means for this country to turn its back on children.

“The idea that a child may never be able to escape poverty because she lacks a decent education or healthcare, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action,” said President Obama.

We are the community, and it is offensive. Now is the time to tell the president: if these cuts land on his desk, he must veto the bill.

Update, December 7, 3:39pm: Senator Stabenow's office did not initially respond to a request for comment, but have replied to this post. Their statement:

Senator Stabenow strongly opposes any changes to food assistance that make cuts in benefits for people who need help putting food on the table for their families. She has been the number one defender against the House Republican proposal to cut food assistance by $40 billion, including rule changes that would throw four million people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) altogether.

Unlike the House proposal, the Senate Farm Bill protects critical food assistance for the over 47 million Americans who need help. The Senate bill saves $4 billion solely through ending program misuse—like stopping lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance, cracking down on retailer benefit trafficking, and curbing the misuse of a LIHEAP paper work policy by a small number of states. It is very important that we continue to maintain the integrity of these critical food assistance programs so that opponents cannot use rare examples of misuse as arguments for gutting assistance to children, families, seniors and disabled Americans.

While no final agreement has been reached, Senator Stabenow will not support any policies that arbitrarily remove people in need from SNAP or make across-the-board cuts to benefits. She will only support savings focused on program misuse.

 

Update, December 9, 11:31am: Response from Greg Kaufmann:

I think many anti-hunger advocates would disagree with the notion that the Chairwoman has been “the number one defender” against the draconian SNAP cuts proposed by House Republicans.  Representatives Jim McGovern, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, and Marcia Fudge come to mind, as does Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.  They not only defend against Republican cuts, but also try to strengthen benefits at a time when nearly 50 million Americans aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal is coming from.  

It is true that Senator Stabenow has spoken clearly in her opposition to the extreme cuts and rule changes in the House Republican proposal.  But that’s hardly a reason to claim bragging rights—it would be like a WNBA player boasting that she can whup any Junior High School player in a game of one-on-one.

The statement that $4 billion (of the more than $8 billion in SNAP cuts agreed to in current negotiations) is found through cracking down on lottery winners, retailer benefit trafficking, and addressing “misuse” of the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) seems misleading.  The amount of SNAP benefits misspent due to fraud by lottery winners and retailers is negligible, and of course everyone supports vigilance to protect the integrity of the program.

But the bulk of the $4 billion in cuts alluded to here—and the other $4 billion-plus agreed to in negotiations—is found through a change to the rule that currently allows families receiving SNAP assistance to qualify for additional benefits if they receive LIHEAP assistance to help with their utility bills.  (If a state’s governor opts in to what is called the “heat and eat” program.)  The heat and eat program—which boosts SNAP benefits for families receiving utility assistance—is based on the recognition that too many Americans are choosing between paying for food or paying for energy.  Some states sign families up for $1 in heating assistance so that they then qualify for the additional food stamp benefits, decreasing the likelihood that they will face the “heat or eat” dilemma.  According to Politico, the agreement between Senator Stabenow and Republican leaders would require $20 in LIHEAP assistance in order to receive additional SNAP benefits.  That change would result in up to $8 billion in SNAP cuts.  Currently, roughly 20 percent of eligible households receive LIHEAP, so there is little reason to believe that most states would step up to meet the $20 threshold for people who need it.

While Senator Stabenow might not be in a position to defend the $1 work around that helps get families the assistance they need, she surely is in a position to explain why both Democratic and Republican Governors alike are looking to obtain additional benefits for families that qualify for food stamps, and why we need to be increasing, not decreasing, those benefits. 

The Chairwoman might remind the country that the average benefit is $1.40 per meal for an individual.  She might point to the report by the Institute of Medicine that clearly describes the inadequacy of food stamp benefits: from the way a family’s net monthly income is calculated by using a standard shelter deduction capped at $478; to the assumption that low-wage workers with erratic schedules will have time to cook unprocessed ingredients from scratch, as well as access supermarkets that offer a variety of healthy foods at lower costs in urban and rural areas.  The Chairwoman might tell America that the SNAP program assumes food prices are consistent no matter where one lives in the nation.  She might point to the millions of families that include children with special health care needs—families not permitted to deduct their out-of-pocket health care costs to calculate their net income. She might draw attention to USDA testimony—all the way back in 1933—that the theoretical “Thrifty Food Plan” currently used in the SNAP program to determine a nutritious diet at minimal cost is for “restricted diets for emergency use,” and that “a reasonable measure of basic needs for a good diet… should be as high as the cost of the low-cost food plan” which would result in more generous food stamp benefit levels.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the staff asserts that the Senator “strongly opposes any changes to food assistance that make cuts in benefits for people who need help putting food on the table for their families.”  But the fact is that the proposed changes would indeed cut benefits for people who need help putting food on the table.  As the Food Research and Action Center writes, “Bottom line, elimination of ‘Heat and Eat’ means lost meals for elderly and disabled households.”

The Chairwoman is in a position to educate the country about how the SNAP program really works, and how it could and should be made better.  If raising benefits through LIHEAP isn’t the right avenue, then she and her fellow-Democrats should suggest the myriad of reforms that would more accurately measure the existing need of hungry families in this country and would consequently raise their benefit levels.

The point isn’t that Republicans would never go for those reforms.  The point is to speak the truth to the American people, shatter the myths and end the misinformation, and make the Republicans defend policies that are indefensible.

Update, December 9, 11:31am:  Response from Joel Berg, executive director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

In the year 2000, as a private citizen on vacation time, I volunteered for a week in Grand Rapids, Michigan to help elect Debbie Stabenow to the United States Senate. That is why it is particularly painful to me that not only is she playing a key role in cutting nutrition assistance for struggling families, but she also is not being straightforward with the public about the impact of the policies she is promoting.

Virtually all advocates—myself included—agree with her efforts to stop lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance and to crack down on retailer benefit trafficking.  But given how rare lottery winners and retailer fraud are, those changes are mostly cosmetic and have nothing to do with the more than $8 billion in nutrition cuts that she is proposing.

The third provision she is proposing—the one that would cut all the money—would eliminate a current feature of the SNAP program that now allows governors in 14 different states, of both political parties, to better combine home energy assistance with SNAP benefits in order to boost food aid to some of the hardest-hit families. Every single penny Senator Stabenow is proposing to take out of SNAP would come directly out of the grocery baskets of families that are very low-income and are currently eligible for the benefits.

It is important to again note that the $5 billion in SNAP cuts which went into effect on November 1 were also enabled by Senate Democrats. Senator Stabenow’s contention that she must advance massive additional cuts of more than $8 billion—as the only possible way to forestall even more massive cuts proposed by the GOP—is misleading as well. As Chair of the Agriculture Committee, she has it well within her power to propose a Farm Bill with no additional SNAP cuts whatsoever.  The House Republicans have no legal ability to pass additional cuts unless the Senate Democrats and President Obama consent to such cuts.  The Democrats should join together in scrapping this horrible bill that slashes food for struggling families while boosting corporate welfare, and instead start from scratch with a brand new farm bill that aids small to mid-sized family farmers, slashes hunger, and boosts rural economic development.

Update, December 9, 11:31am: Response from Dr. Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, Director, Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Drexel University School of Public Health:

When Senate Ag leadership likens the cuts to SNAP as “savings” that curb “misuse of a LIHEAP paperwork policy,” we can see that they do not fully grasp the way that American families experience hunger and food insecurity.

Families don’t go hungry in a vacuum.  Families make terrible tradeoffs- between paying for heat or paying to eat.  The women of Witnesses to Hunger—who use their photography and stories to describe their experiences with hunger and poverty—can tell you that first hand.  Jill Shaw, a Member of Witnesses to Hunger from Central Pennsylvania shows a picture of her stove, and writes:  “I am a witnesses to hunger everyday.  I am a witness to the disappointment in my children’s eyes when they tell me they are hungry and I tell them there’s no food.  My stove is a source of heat more than it is a source for cooking food.” To learn more about housing and utilities and how they relate to hunger, just take a brief tour here of America’s reality in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Camden NJ. If you want this in cold hard numbers instead of pictures and experiences, see our Children’s HealthWatch research.

Those of us on the ground: pediatricians, public health researchers, social services providers, and the true experts—those who know hunger and poverty first hand—recognize that the forward thinking states have attempted to prevent the worst of hunger and the worst of frigid mornings.  The states that utilize the heat and eat provision, are actually improving our current income support systems, because they are calculating the amount of SNAP benefits needed when one considers the true cost of shelter. To learn more about this, check out the Congressional Research Service explanation.

This LIHEAP provision is a protection for families based in a cold hard reality: food insecurity is a form of hardship based on trading off costs of basic needs. It’s a smart work around that ought to be scaled up across the country, not slashed as a technical expediency.  If there were really forward thinking change coming out of the Senate and House, the SNAP benefit calculation would be based on the true cost of shelter regardlessof whether or not a family receives LIHEAP.  It’s a frigid wake-up indeed, to see these proposed cuts.  Some have said that the House GOP is out of touch with low-income America, but sometimes it seems as if all of our leaders are out of touch.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this headline suggested that Stabenow was pushing for the cuts to food stamps.

Last week, Greg Kaufmann wrote about the need for a shared agenda to combat poverty.

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