WASHINGTON — A Republican attempt to cut funding for food stamps by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years is highly unlikely to become law — but, if as a warning, state officials say tens of thousands of Minnesotans would lose food stamp benefits if it were to.
The U.S. House could vote on the legislation this week, looking to suture its version of a farm bill and send it to a House-Senate conference committee before current law expires at the end of the month. Democrats in the Senate have proposed a $4 billion cut, which officials say would not kick any Minnesotans off the program.
The House’s proposed 5 percent cut is a pretty deep one for a program whose number of beneficiaries has exploded since the recession. Congressional Budget Office estimates says as many of 3.8 million people (out of 47 million nationally) could be left without food stamps if the bill were to pass. The state Department of Human Services says such a cut would kick about 32,000 Minnesotans off of food stamps (formally titled the “Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program”).
In Minnesota, the newly-ineligible beneficiaries would be those who currently qualify under a program called “categorical eligibility,” in which states set food stamp eligibility standards based on state welfare programs. State’s standards are often more lenient than those set by the feds — in Minnesota anyone making less than 165 percent of the federal poverty level (or $38,800 for a family of four) is eligible for food stamps.
The House bill would set a lower eligibility threshold and reinstate a review of a would-be beneficiary’s assets (such as savings accounts and investments) before granting food stamps. State officials said the first measure would leave 32,000 Minnesotans (more than half of them children) without food stamps; an asset test would kick others off the rolls, DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said, though they haven’t calculated how many yet.
Finding $20 billion in additional cuts
Categorical eligibility changes have been a central part of House Republican food-stamp policy for a while now. It was in last year’s farm bill, which never saw House action, and in the version that failed on the floor in June, when conservative Republicans said it didn’t cut enough and Democrats said it cut too much already. Republican leadership said it would find an additional $20 billion in 10-year savings to entice conservatives to support the package and pass it without Democrats’ help.
They did so by ending a waiver system for limitations on food stamps for certain types of workers. Under current law, these workers (dependent-less adults between 18-50 who are not otherwise medically unfit to work) are allowed to receive only three months worth of food stamps unless they’re working at least 20 hours a week or participating in job training. During economic downturns, states are able to request a waiver to the three-month limit, as Minnesota has done. Under the Republican plan, the waivers go away, saving $19 billion over 10 years, and leaving 1.7 million people without benefits next year, per the CBO.
In a FAQ to rebuff opposition to their cuts, Republican leadership said there are “opportunities for those individuals to remain in compliance, by performing community service activities like clearing trash from roads and parks, helping staff soup kitchens and food pantries, or other voluntary activities in exchange for their taxpayer-provided benefits.”
That plan would have no short-term impact for most Minnesotans: The state’s employment levels are high enough that its waiver expires at the end of September (except for four counties and seven Native American reservations). About 41,000 Minnesotans qualify for the program right now.
But Jesson said the state likes the flexibility it has in requesting a waiver when the economy is sputtering.
“We are ending our waiver because our employment numbers have increased,” she said. But, “we should be able to ask for a waiver [in the future]. I just really believe that people in Minnesota should not being going to bed hungry.”
Big increase after the recession
The number of Americans on food stamps have skyrocketed since 2008: an average of 46.6 million Americans a month used food stamps last year, up 65 percent from 2008, costing the government $74 billion. More than 555,000 Minnesotans are on food stamps, bringing in about $4 a day, according to the Minnesota Budget Project. Minnesotans spent about $750 million in food stamps last year.
In pushing their proposed cut, Republicans say they’re trying to rein in a program with out-of-control growth and occasionally low eligibility standards, and they note that even if their bill passes, more people will still be on food stamps than before the recession. But nutrition advocates say they’re looking to punish a program that’s simply doing what it’s supposed to do: Help down-on-their-luck Americans who lose their jobs.
“The cuts that have been proposed and continuously proposed by Republicans are an embarrassment,” Colleen Moriarty, the executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said.
Moriarty’s group had a long wish list for this year’s farm bill, hoping lawmakers would fully-fund food stamps and even restore some funding for SNAP education (the House bill cuts about $30 million in education funding, Jesson said). But Moriarty said she realizes there will be cuts — she just would prefer a path more like the one taken by the Senate, which cuts about $4 billion over 10 years.
“We understand that there’s a fiscal issue, and we’re pragmatic about it,” she said. “The unrealistic view of it is the current House proposal.”
Unlikely to become law
The bill’s long-term prospects are dim, even if it passes the House.
Democrats have raged against the bill’s cuts, including a provision added to the original farm bill that allows states to require all food stamp beneficiaries search for work to remain eligible. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that not one Democrat will support the bill when it comes to the floor, and Senate Democrats are adamantly against it.
What’s worse, from a political standpoint, is that the bill asks Congress to reauthorize nutrition programs every three years, decoupling it from the five-year agriculture-only farm bill. Many lawmakers and a litany of agriculture groups have said splitting up the agriculture-nutrition coalition will doom the prospects for farm bills now and in the future.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told constituents Monday he’s pessimistic about the farm bill’s prospects this session. In a statement, he blamed it on the fight over food stamps.
“The Republican leadership has decided to move forward with an unnecessary and divisive nutrition bill,” Peterson said in a statement Monday. “Even if this bill is defeated, as it should be, I worry the debate will eliminate any remaining goodwill needed to pass a farm bill.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry