States Finding Way Around Food Stamp Cuts

Monday, 10 Mar 2014 01:28 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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Iowa Rep. Steve King condemned three states that have circumvented cuts in the federal food stamp program, calling their legislative maneuvering, "perverse."

New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania have opted to spend more money on a home-heating subsidy that is tied to increased food stamp aid.

If more states follow their lead, the U.S. government may end up spending the $8.6 billion in food stamp costs it had hoped to save when Congress passed an overhaul of agriculture and food policy last month.

"We didn’t expect [this], or we would’ve written it in the language to prohibit it," King, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees food stamps and nutrition aid, told The Washington Post. "The move, though legal, is perverse, just perverse."

Fiscal conservatives have become increasingly concerned with the recent balloon in spending on food stamps. According to the Washington Post report, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it is formally known, cost a record $79.9 billion in 2013, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year that Americans spend on groceries.

Some of that aid is tied to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which allows states that gave residents as little as $1 a year in home-heating assistance to qualify that person’s household for an average of $1,080 in additional food stamps annually, a practice nicknamed "heat-and-eat."

When 15 states and the District of Columbia began doing this, Congress amended the law, raising to $20 a year the home-heating aid needed for a household to get extra food stamps . But it has not been the deterrent lawmakers envisioned.

New York raised home-heating spending by $6 million, triggering an additional $457 million a year in federal food stamp spending.

In a Feb. 25 statement, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, "These federal cuts have made it harder for our state’s most vulnerable residents to put food on the table. The state has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers."

Connecticut and Pennsylvania have taken similar measures. Connecticut will spend an extra $1.4 million to preserve food stamp money for about 50,000 households, while Pennsylvania intends to spend $8 million to save $300 million in food stamp funding for some 400,000 families.

"Some states will be able to do it, some states will not be able to," Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro told the Washington Post. "They have jumped into the breach where the federal government abdicated its responsibility."

Budget watchdogs like Andy Roth, government affairs vice president with the Washington small-government advocacy group Club for Growth, are not pleased.

"True reform would have included stringent work requirements for food stamp eligibility," he said. "Even better, devolve the program back to the states as block grants, which would end the temptation to exploit quirks in federal law."

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