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Lawmakers eye food stamps tied to heat subsidies

Some think more cuts need to be made, and they say some states are taking advantage of a loophole.

By Money Staff Nov 18, 2013 2:28PM

This post comes from Alan Bjerga at partner site Bloomberg.


Bloomberg on MSN MoneyCongressional critics looking to cut the nation’s food stamp bill -- which has doubled in the past five years -- are pointing to what some people say is a loophole in the law.


Woman and refrigerator © a state gives a resident as little as $1 a year in heating assistance, it allows that person’s household to automatically qualify for an average of $1,080 in additional food stamps annually from the federal government.


That’s what 14 states, including New York and California, and the District of Columbia have done.


"If there are programs available for people, we should use them," Mary Cheh, a Democratic member of the District of Columbia city council, said. At her urging, the council unanimously approved the "heat and eat" arrangement in 2009, agreeing to make token heating-aid payments so citizens can get more for food.


Members of a House-Senate conference committee are scrutinizing food stamp eligibility rules as they seek to reconcile different versions of a bill that would set agricultural policy for the next five years. Either would cut food stamp spending, mostly by altering who can get benefits. The Senate would cut roughly $4 billion over 10 years, largely by toughening the heat-and-eat requirement. The House trims another $35 billion by further tightening eligibility and adding drug testing and work requirements.


Spending doubled

Federal spending on food stamps -- formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- has more than doubled in the past five years, with the bulk of the money spent at retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co.


Reductions are necessary to keep the program focused on its purpose of providing temporary assistance to truly needy people in difficult times, said Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst for food stamps at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based research group that favors major reductions.


The heating program "is basically a loophole," she said. "Food-stamp spending is federal, so states have no incentive not to seek increased benefits."


The farm bill "is an opportunity to reform. It’s the logical time to take steps to promote self-sufficiency" through work requirements, smaller subsidies and tighter eligibility, she said. "Let’s look at our welfare system, how it’s working and what it can be."


$75 billion

Food stamps spent at retailers such as Target Corp. and Supervalu Inc. cost a record $75.2 billion in 2012, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year Americans spend on groceries. About 47.7 million Americans used the program in August, the most recent month available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week. Almost half of all food-stamp redemptions are in big-box supercenters such as Wal-Mart, while most of the rest are in chains such as Safeway Inc., according to data collected by Bloomberg.


Payments to recipients fell about 5 percent already this month, as a temporary boost passed as part of the 2009 economic stimulus expired. Both the House and Senate versions of a farm bill include further reductions. The Senate plan saves money mainly by raising to $10 a year the amount of heating assistance states must contribute in order to qualify residents for the heat-and-eat food stamp benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office.


The House, as part of a plan to shave $39 billion from food stamps, raises the required state contribution under the heat-and-eat provision to $20 a year. That would save $8.7 billion over a decade as states drop the program because of the increased cost. The House would also cut $11.6 billion by ending "categorical eligibility," in which enrollment in other social services automatically qualifies a recipient for food stamps even when eligibility under those programs are less strenuous than for the food aid.


Waiver issue

Together, those two proposals would knock 1.8 million households off food stamps and cut benefits by about $90 a month for 850,000 others. The biggest savings, $19 billion, would come from reducing waivers states can give childless adults who would otherwise face work requirements or time limits under food stamps. That would immediately cut off 1.7 million recipients, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The reductions make little sense at a time when, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, about 49 million in the U.S. struggle to put food on their plates, said Ellen Vollinger, food-stamp lobbyist with the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based anti-hunger advocacy group that has urged states to adopt heat-and-eat programs.


"These programs provide economic stability to communities," she said. "That doesn’t change just because of discussion in Washington."


Navy veteran

Debra Frigon, a 53-year-old District of Columbia resident, uses food stamps to supplement disability checks she receives from the Veterans Administration and Social Security, related in part to her Navy service in the 1980s. She's already seen her benefits cut this month by the expiration of the stimulus and worries that additional reductions will threaten a healthy diet for her one daughter who is still at home.


"We eat sandwiches during the week and try to eat more balanced meals on weekends," she said. "We buy marked-down products and small portions, but what we have already doesn't go very far. We've already lost some benefits. More would really hurt us."


Improving economy

Other changes in the House bill would cut nutrition education funds, impose drug-testing requirements and ban aid to felons. In total, tighter rules and an improving economy would drop food-stamp rolls to 34 million people by 2023, according to the budget office.


The federal government should be pushing states to get food-stamp recipients to work and Congress should be less focused on finding ways to throw people out of the program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. The House plan "is not the right way to approach the policy. If folks are focusing on the right policy," spending should go down on its own without new restrictions, he said in an interview.


U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said what matters most is crafting policies that better target the program to the neediest. Benefit-boosts tied to heating benefits are "indefensible to the folks back home," he said.


"Spending is out of control," he said. "This is the one entitlement that we’ll have an actual vote on this year, and this is the one chance for House Republicans" to follow through on promises to limit social spending, he said.


Cheh, the Washington city council member, said the farm-bill debate is frustrating to her city, where food-stamp enrollment in the 2012 fiscal year was 141,147, roughly 22 percent of the city’s population.


"Poorer families don't have political power, that’s why this is occurring," she said. "Just because they don't have political power, that doesn’t mean you can be cruel to people at the bottom."


More from Bloomberg:


Nov 18, 2013 4:12PM

These programs were supposed to be a safety net, not a hammock.

Nov 18, 2013 3:58PM
Reading about all of these programs, SNAP, WIC, heating bills assistance - AM I THE ONLY SAP out there paying his own way? I had no idea there were SOOOOOOOOOOO many programs for people to NOT PAY THEIR OWN WAY>
Nov 18, 2013 4:09PM

these programs were to help people in the short term, but we have families on these programs for generations  mom is on welfare so 16 yr old gets pregnant and gets welfare too, mom told to get a job or no more benefits so does she -no she gets pregnant  again they know how to work the system

Nov 18, 2013 4:24PM
Get a job if you need more money.  Food stamps should be for the DISABLED.  If you can't afford to feed your kids don't have any.
Nov 18, 2013 4:16PM

It should be the opposite, if you get heat aid then food stamps should be cut. The money you saved on oil can be used for food so less food stamps are needed.

Nov 18, 2013 4:49PM
for my entire life I had to pay both my heat bill and my food bill.  Why do I have to pay for others that make bad choices and refuse to try?
Nov 18, 2013 4:18PM

As Edith and Archie used to sing “Didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight.”

Nov 18, 2013 4:15PM
Hey wait, I cant feed my litter of future democrats if you take my food stamps, Pay my heating bill too.  I will use my obamaphone to call if the temp gets too low & I will know when that happens, I will be watching Jerrys Springer in between breeding.
Nov 18, 2013 4:44PM
They need to change What they can buy with food stamps..   Snap cards with pictures..  Any fraud excludes them from receiving  food stamps.
Nov 18, 2013 4:35PM
Well just screw me again. The low life's of the country get nothing but breaks at my expense.
Nov 18, 2013 5:06PM
I struggle to pay my own bills. Everyday I see some one abusing the system. Makes me angry. I pay my own way.
Nov 18, 2013 5:37PM

"the nation’s food stamp bill -- which has doubled in the past five years --"


And just how long has Obama been in office?


Answer: the past five years

Nov 18, 2013 4:24PM
Exactly Another Name 96. It's all b.s. Plenty of work for those who want to. May not be glamorous work. But' it pays the bills. Here in Sarasota Florida,  it's a joke.  So many homeless (Alkies and Druggies), mainly. Sell their food stamps each and every month for alcohol,  drugs, etc. Tallahassee does nothing They do nothing to help themselves. Just in the way!!.
Nov 18, 2013 6:08PM
I went to the food bank once to check it out.You would not believe the number of people outside smoking and talking on thier phones.I say if a person can afford a 10 dollar pack of smokes they can buy food since most prob smoke 200-300 dollars worth a month,also it is unbelievable the number that will sell food for  .50 on the dollar to buy crack or other drugs.I see it all the time where I'm from.Also alot of people buy a ton of junk food with snap.Anyone on snap or other gov money(benifits) should be made to take a drug test and if positive benifits should be stopped.
Nov 18, 2013 5:06PM
 the only earth the meek will inherit is the dirt they are buried under!  however, it seems the lazy and uneducated are inheriting the usa. 105 million taxpayers supporting 90 million taxreceivers.
Nov 18, 2013 5:30PM
The program has become something it was not intended to be
Nov 18, 2013 4:57PM
I'm a sap too but I was raised to be honest and to be  responsible in life to pay my bills on time  and not to take handouts I have an example of a food stamp receiver an individual who receives this benefit she just purchased a new car brags to her children that she makes $500 a week in tips her son owns a laptop which I cannot afford due to receiving $133 less a month in food for my family than one on snap and the mom and children are all overweight, smoke, and have received these and other benefits for 18 years now or how about those with cancer on aid my sister worked up to the day of her death and my sister-n-law left work three months before her death none on aid. The newest bipolar scam quit job to live off of aid wow my sister is a manic depressive and has worked all of her life. What about the family with 11 children raised to adulthood than the parents continue on their lifetime aid due to their age. I only have sympathy for the honest family collecting not the scammers!
Nov 18, 2013 3:15PM
You establishment Republicans are ready to fight on food stamps and not on something far more wasteful like Obamacare ?   Get you priorities in order man.

All the entitlements need to go.  Extreme change is needed to roll back an out of control rapidly growing police and surveillance state.   However, these Republicrats are playing around with window dressing to stay in office.

It's time for politics to get "Sabanized", start recending laws and eliminating federal departments.

Nov 18, 2013 4:42PM
I will vote for ANY politician who will promise to go on air and do what he/she can to stop the "ask your doctor" ads!! These things are addicting the country it seems to me.  We all know those who have lost their jobs due to prescription FDA junk pills.  We have seen those who lose their memory but the whitecoats never admit it is the pills. Fewer will be working and more on food stamps if the trend continues.  I personally believe the FDA should be shut down but I know it won't be.  It rakes in money and destroys lives.  And, for those who say it is the fault of those on the pills, be careful.   It will sneak up on you like a rattlesnake.  The American governmetn, in my opion, is the biggest drug dealer in the country.  I hate TVLand because of all the "ask your doctor" junk ads!
Nov 18, 2013 5:42PM
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