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Lawmakers, Advocates Raise Concerns as SNAP Benefits Shrink

Courtesy Department of Agriculture
Anti-hunger groups began raising the alarm about the impact of the drop-off of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits several months ago.

Davis said the loss of $36 a month in buying power may seem small to more affluent people. However, she said, “If you’re a low-income family and you’re struggling to get by on the dollars that you have, $36 is quite a lot and it will have impact. It’s several gallons of milk, cereal and a lot of the staples for families.”

The extra purchasing power for SNAP recipients always had an end date, but a Democrat-led Senate and House moved the expiration up by several years in 2010.

To meet budget requirements for offsets, lawmakers tapped $11.9 billion slated for fiscal 2014 through fiscal 2018 to help pay for keeping school teachers on the job and Medicaid payments flowing to the states (PL 111-226). This moved the expiration date to March 31, 2014.

Congress took another $2.5 billion from the extra money for the reauthorization and expansion of the school lunch and breakfast programs (PL 111-296). With that action, the end date for higher benefits became Oct. 31, 2013.

More than 100 Democrats held up passage of the school reauthorization in late 2010, until they obtained a promise from the Obama administration that it would somehow replace the stimulus money in the ensuing years.

But it seemed questionable that the White House could make good on the promise, even as it pledged to pursue additional funding. Democrats had lost control of the House in November 2010 and the incoming Republican majority’s priorities called for more military and defense-related spending, dialing back federal regulations and retooling domestic entitlement programs.

The upcoming reduction will mean immediate adjustments for many SNAP recipients. Anti-hunger groups say the loss of those billions means the higher benefits will end abruptly, rather than taper off — an approach that would have given recipients time to adjust their budgets. Several elderly SNAP beneficiaries called in to C-SPAN the week of Oct. 7 and said that they have received notices of the lower benefits.

In the longer term, SNAP recipients potentially face even bigger changes under the House farm bill.

The nutrition language in the House measure, if adopted, would end state flexibility on setting SNAP eligibility, move more people into state work-related activities under threat of losing benefits and prevent states from extending food benefits for able-bodied single childless adults in areas of high unemployment. The CBO estimates that the House policy changes could remove nearly 4 million people from SNAP in fiscal 2014. An average of 2.8 million would lose eligibility each year afterwards, the agency said. The Senate farm bill calls for $4 billion in SNAP reductions over 10 years, primarily by raising the threshold for utility deductions that help determine the amount of food benefits for which a household qualifies.

House and Senate negotiators plan to begin formal talks soon to hammer out differences on farm and nutrition programs between their respective bills.

Anti-hunger organizations say the changes proposed in the House bill and the scheduled end of the temporary boost in SNAP benefits would mean more poor families without food money and greater demand on charities.

“We are not a replacement for a strong federal safety net,” Davis said. “Last year, our entire network of 202 food banks provided just over 3 billion meals.”

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