House Republicans plan to seek $40 billion in cuts to the nation's food stamp program, doubling the size of the reduction to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) previously sought in the unprecedented fracas over the 2013 Farm Bill. The figure is ten times the $4 billion cut to nutrition aid approved in the Senate version of the farm bill. House GOP members had already made headlines on agriculture policy on July 11 when they succeeded in severing food aid from the agricultural support programs contained in the farm bill. The two elements are typically paired, following the logic that while food aid was welcome in low-income urban sites, ag-support was essential to rural districts. Passing a new farm package has been vastly complicated by that outcome.
In July GOP leaders were seeking $20 billion in food aid cuts, a figure already unpalatable to House Democrats and sure to be rejected by the Senate and the White House. Today, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, told members of the Agribusiness Club during a lunch gathering in Washington that a Republican working group agreed on cuts expected to total $40 billion. Proposals include steps such as mandatory drugs tests and employment rules for SNAP applicants.
Federal nutrition assistance programs currently reach more than 47 million Americans who have demonstrated eligibility. At the high end—$40 billion—House Republican proposals would trim about 4 percent of SNAP’s $800 billion ten-year budget, a cut that may mean more than 4 million recipients would be cut from the program annually.
Lucas said staff-level work toward reconciling the Senate and House bills would continue during the upcoming five-week congressional recess. "I think we'll make great progress," he told Reuters.
His optimism was not shared by Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. He said in a statement, "The Republican leadership plans to bring up yet another political messaging bill to nowhere in an effort to try and placate the extreme right wing of their party." Peterson said the additional food stamp cuts "effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year."
Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bihops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, commenting on these new proposals, called the unwillingness of some members of Congress to compromise on important legislation “irresponsible.”
“When members of Congress get elected,” he said, “they can have a different perspectives, but ultimately they have to remember that they serve all the people; they serve all the people of the United States. They really have to reflect on that.
“Ultimately at the end of the day, they have to get the business of government done,” the bishop said. “They have to have the necessary laws in place to move the country forward, and the only way they can get that done is through compromise.”
Bishop Pates added that from the perspective of the church, the needs of America’s poor should have the highest priority. “Pope Francis has given us a great example of that,” Bishop Pates said. “We are working for the poor, so there is no doubt that that is where our concerns are.”
The people who receive food aid, Bishop Pates said, are “children, the working poor and the elderly. These are the faces of the poor; they are the ones who are going to be suffering the most [from cuts in nutrition aid].”
Bishops Pates said food programs should be reformed as necessary “but keep the heart of it to help these basic constituencies that really do need the help. Some may take advantage of it, and we can do what we can to address that question, but on balance SNAP is an excellent program that really serves the needs of the poor.”
As discussions in Washington continued about SNAP’s fate, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities was describing the program as “historically…the most responsive federal program after unemployment insurance in assisting families and communities during economic downturns.”
The C.B.P.P., in a report released July 30, acknowledged that SNAP enrollment and costs were at an all-time high. According to the report: “Some critics have claimed that the fact that SNAP enrollment has not declined in tandem with the recent decline in the unemployment rate indicates most of SNAP’s enrollment growth of recent years is not related to the economy. The reality, however, is that SNAP enrollment and costs are high because the job market remains weak.”
According to the C.B.P.P., “The recent reductions in the unemployment rate overstate the improvements in the labor market since the economy hit bottom, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently observed. Most tellingly, the proportion of the adult population with a job (the employment rate) has barely improved since the depth of the recession.”
The study reports that the number of unemployed workers who aren’t receiving any unemployment insurance benefits—the group of the unemployed most likely to qualify for SNAP because they have neither wages nor unemployment insurance benefits—has continued to grow and iseven higher now than at the bottom of the recession.
The C.B.P.P. analysis argues that “declines in poverty and SNAP enrollment typically lag behind declines in the unemployment rate following recessions.” The center’s researchers say if the job market improves and “fewer families thus need food assistance, SNAP enrollment and costs should come down.
“In fact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that as the labor market recovers, SNAP costs will decline markedly. CBO projects that by 2019, SNAP costs will fall all of the way back to their mid-1990s level, measured as a share of gross domestic product.”
The center also notes that the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost to SNAP benefits is scheduled to end on November 1, 2013, resulting in a benefit cut for every SNAP household. For families of three, the cut will be $29 a month. "That’s a serious loss," say C.B.P.P. researchers, "especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits. Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014."
On July 31 the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an action alert asking Catholics to “urge your Representative and Senators to support SNAP (food stamps), pass bi-partisan immigration reform, and support a budget that helps people struggling in this economy.
“Most members of Congress will be home during the summer recess between August 5 and September 9,” the alert says. “Tell your Representative and Senators” to “support the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” “replace the sequester with a circle of protection,” and “support bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform.” The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul joined the USCCB in issuing the action alert.