Big cuts loom for food-stamp program

WASHINGTON — The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program costs about $80 billion per year and provides food aid to 14 percent of all U.S. households — some 47 million people. Those numbers swelled dramatically during the recession.

But the food-stamp program is set to downsize in the weeks ahead. There’s a big automatic cut scheduled for Nov. 1, as a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill expires. That change will trim about $5 billion from federal food-stamp spending over the coming year.

And the number of Americans on food stamps could drop even further in the months ahead as Congress and some states contemplate more changes to the program. Here’s a rundown:

1.) The end of the stimulus boost. First up is a big automatic cut to SNAP scheduled for Nov. 1. This is happening because the food-stamp program was temporarily expanded in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. That bill spent $45.2 billion to increase monthly benefit levels to around $133, on average.

That bump will end Friday, shrinking benefits by about 5 percent on average. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a calculated what this will mean for individual households.

The maximum monthly benefit for a family of four will drop from $668 to $632, the CBPP said. The maximum monthly benefit for an individual will drop from $200 to $189. “The cut is equivalent to about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Thrifty Food Plan,” the CBPP notes.

Those cuts will add up to a $5 billion reduction in federal spending next year. Every state will be affected. California, for example, will see a $457 million drop in spending over the upcoming year, while Texas will lose $411 million.

2.) Congress could cut food stamps even further. The stimulus lapse isn’t the only cut on the horizon. This week, the House and Senate will resume their haggling over a five-year farm bill. The main point of contention is over how much to pare back the food-stamp program.

The Senate approved a farm bill that would make only minor changes to the food-stamp program, saving $4.5 billion over 10 years compared with current law.

House Republicans went further, voting on a bill that would cut $39 billion from the program over 10 years, largely by tightening restrictions on who could qualify for food stamps. The House bill would remove 3.8 million people from the food-stamp rolls over the upcoming year by making two big changes.

First, it would reinstate limits on benefits for able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50. These recipients would only be able to collect limited benefits — up to three months over a three-year period — unless they worked more than 20 hours per week or enrolled in job-training programs. (States are currently able to waive these latter requirements when unemployment is high.)

Conservatives have argued that reinstating the work requirements will encourage adults to find jobs more quickly. Their proposal would remove an estimated 1.7 million people from the food-stamp rolls. Liberal critics have countered that employment opportunities are still scarce in many parts of the country — and that the change would leave Americans without food or work.

The second big change is that the House bill would restrict states’ ability to determine a person’s eligibility for food stamps based in part on whether they qualify for other low-income benefits. This “categorical eligibility” has generally allowed families just above the poverty line to receive food stamps if they have unusually high housing costs or are facing other hardships.

But if the House bill becomes law, another 2.1 million people would be ineligible for food stamps next year, and another 1.8 million people would be removed per year for the next decade.

It’s unclear how many of these cuts will actually get passed into law, however, since the House and Senate still have to figure out how to reconcile their two bills.

3.) New state restrictions. Even if Congress doesn’t pass further cuts to the program, some states could act on their own to restrict eligibility.

This year, 44 states qualified for federal waivers that would allow more able-bodied adults to receive food stamps if unemployment was particularly high. House Republicans want to curtail those waivers as part of their farm bill. But even if the House GOP doesn’t get its way, some states are planning to stop asking for waivers anyway.

Kansas already let its waiver expire at the start of October, a change that could affect some 20,000 residents. Oklahoma’s legislature passed a bill to add a similar work requirement to its food-stamp program. Ohio is planning to enact similar restrictions starting Jan. 1, and Wisconsin is expected to follow suit in July.

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