FUNDING for food stamps -- now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- was the biggest difference between the Senate and House farm bill proposals last year, and it looks like it will again be at the center of this year's farm bill debate.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) introduced a bill March 5 that he said offers "billions in savings without ever touching the food on the table for the millions who rely on the program."
Roberts, the lead Republican at the time last year's Senate farm bill was written, said his proposal's savings of $36 billion reflect what the Republican side was trying to do last year by eliminating loopholes, duplicative programs and unnecessary bonuses and restricting lottery winners from receiving benefits.
"This bill is a package of straightforward, commonsense reforms that have garnered bipartisan support in the past to address waste, fraud and abuse. We can and should restore integrity to SNAP for those who rely on it while being more responsible to the taxpayer, and we can achieve billions in real savings without ever affecting food on the table," Roberts said.
Specifically, the bill would eliminate a loophole in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Roberts said 17 states exploit this loophole by offering a nominal amount (e.g., $1) in LIHEAP benefits to boost SNAP participation and benefit levels.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released an updated score of last year's farm bill proposals estimating that spending on nutrition programs would increase by $4.4 billion over the next 10 years -- rather than result in a savings -- because of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture interprets whether households qualify for utility allowances.
LIHEAP caught heat in a House Agriculture Committee hearing where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was questioned about how USDA is administering the allowance.
Vilsack said the issue is "far from settled" and added that it was only a small sampling of two states, so perhaps a larger sampling may paint a different picture than CBO's understanding of how USDA administers the funds.
Another part of Roberts' proposal goes after duplicative employment and training programs, which could save $4.4 billion. In explaining his proposal to media, Roberts said four states receive nearly 80% of the total 50/50 match funding for state-provided training: New York (36%), California (20.2%), Pennsylvania (12.4%) and New Jersey (9.7%).
This optional 50/50 federal match is uncapped and can be used by states to provide reimbursement for participants' expenses. These include union dues, test fees, clothing and tools required for the job, relocation expenses, licensing and bonding fees, transportation and child care. Roberts said it has become more of a "slush fund" for state coffers and doesn't represent the "reasonable and necessary" prerequisites the law intended.
Roberts proposed to eliminate the Nutrition Education Grant Program, which also would provide $4.4 billion in savings. In practice, the top four states receive more than 54% of the SNAP Nutrition Education Grant Program funding, while the bottom 33 state agencies each receive less than 1% of the total funding.
Roberts' proposal also would restore program integrity to categorical eligibility for SNAP, saving $11.5 billion. Currently, states can automatically enroll recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in SNAP. Roberts claims that, at the encouragement of USDA, states are exploiting this provision by providing minimal TANF assistance to recipients in the form of informational brochures and 1-800 numbers, which then qualifies them for SNAP benefits. His bill would tie automatic SNAP eligibility to TANF cash assistance only.
The bill prohibits lottery winners from receiving SNAP benefits and keeps them from receiving new benefits if they do not meet the financial requirements of SNAP.