Oh SNAP! Is Congress working together?

The current farm bill is reviewed and revised every five years, expiring on Sept 30, 2012.  For this to fall on an election year, it’s a pretty big deal.  Why?  Because the farm bill does more than just provide guidelines, protection and aid to farmers; it controls what happens to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as Food Stamps.

On July 6, 2012, the House Agriculture Committee released its amendments to the Senate’s proposed changes.  Those voting spent 15 hours debating the details of the bill, and a majority of that time was spent on discussing SNAP.  Understandably so, as about $80 million dollars –what it takes to supplement 1 out of every 7 families in the US – is required from the farm bill to fund SNAP.

However, the most interesting part is how seemingly bi-partisan the process has been so far.  Democrats are agreeing to cuts and Republicans are agreeing with their compromise.  On one end we have the McGovern Amendment, proposing to eliminate all cuts to SNAP.  This was shot down by a 31-15 vote, with Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the committee, understanding that “these are the cuts that need to be done” in order to get the bill passed by the committee and the House.  On the other end of the spectrum lies a Republican’s proposal to double the food stamp reductions to $3.3 billion a year. Half of the 26 Republicans on the committee joined forces with the Democrats to defeat this amendment with a 33-13 vote. Several Republicans acknowledged that increasing the cuts would only decrease the likelihood of compromise with the Senate.

In a system that is designed for no one to get everything they want, where every national decision is thrown across the Hill countless times before actually becoming a reality, this example of bi-partisanship is pretty exciting! But is it the right time?  Is it fair? How much would this revision help our country’s citizens and who would be hurt by it?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, over the next ten years the House bill would cost $35 billion less, while the Senate bill would cost $23 billion less.  BOTH bills have basically the same proposals: The savings will come from shaving off about $14 billion in commodity support programs and about $6 billion in consolidating conservation programs.

The only thing widely disagreed on is SNAP benefits. The House wants to cut $16 billion from food stamps while the Senate would cut $4 billion.

Oh SNAP, that seems like a lot of money.  And that raises a lot of questions. Where do the savings come from? Who is affected by these changes the most? How do the Senate and House differ on where to cut costs?

After hours of fact searching and data checking, these questions are pretty simple to answer.  How do they differ?  Well, they almost don’t.  Both the House and the Senate would crack down on individual fraud (during those hours of probing I have yet to find out exactly how) and limiting states that connect heating assistance and SNAP benefits. The House just takes these saving mechanisms one step, and $12 billion dollars, further by putting an end to states ignoring the asset limit for food stamps so long as those in need receive other welfare benefits. It also would end Agriculture Department bonus payments to states that increase food stamp registrations.

To put it bluntly, the efforts to cut off the link between heating assistance to food stamps would mean that 500,000 households (A YEAR!) would have their monthly benefits reduced by about $90.  About 1/3 of the government allotted grocery budget – gone.  All of this, only to save $4.5 billion…over ten years.  And the cherry on top?  280,000 children would no longer be eligible for free school lunches…sometimes the only place they actually get a meal.

The discrepancies between the House and Senate proposals are small on paper, but huge in the real world.  At a time when more families than ever are in need of receiving social program support, is cutting back on their support the right move? Not to mention the increasing costs of food in general.  Is it justifiable to take away money that can only be spent on food when people need more of it than ever? Especially when we can look to countries like Greece which is practicing austerity among their low-income population, are their methods working and should we follow suit?

Or should we just back away slowly from this political crib of sleeping babies and let them work together and reach compromise for what feels like the first time in this administration’s history?



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