SNAP funding cut to help pay for other bills

by Jay Sjerven
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Leading advocates for the hungry decried Congress’s targeting of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for funding reductions to offset the costs of legislation enacted to save teacher and other public sector jobs and to provide support to the states attempting to shore up Medicaid budgets. The advocates also criticized the Senate for turning again to SNAP to help offset part of the cost of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act it passed Aug. 5.

Members of the House of Representatives, recalled from their August recess, gathered Aug. 10 to pass by a vote of 247 to 161 a bill that provides $26.1 billion to states struggling with acute budget shortfalls that threatened the jobs of thousands of public employees, including teachers, and grappling with gaps in their Medicaid budgets created by increased demand from the unemployed and financially stressed households.

The Senate the previous week passed the legislation, and President Barack Obama signed the final bill into law immediately after the House action.

Under the “pay-go” rules accepted by Congress, the costs of the bill had to be offset with “savings” from other programs. A tax measure affecting multinational corporations accounted for one offset. The other major offset was an $11.9-billion cut in SNAP funding beginning in April 2014.

SNAP funding was increased significantly under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the economic stimulus act). The cut in benefits to provide an offset to the jobs/Medicaid bill would effectively roll back, after April 2014, most of the increased support for SNAP authorized under the stimulus. It was estimated a family of four may see its monthly SNAP benefits drop around $54 when the cuts take effect. More than 40 million Americans currently receive SNAP benefits. Program participation has never been greater.

Separately, the Senate on Aug. 5 passed by unanimous consent legislation reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs. S. 3307, or the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, enhanced these programs while establishing much-welcomed national nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. But to offset the costs of these improvements, SNAP was targeted for further cuts, this time amounting to about $1.3 billion in reductions scheduled to take effect in 2013. The House of Representatives was yet to vote on its version of child nutrition program reauthorization. Its current version envisions no cuts for SNAP.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a telephone conference with the press on Aug. 10 said he appreciated the work of the Senate and House in approving legislation to avoid imminent “devastating layoffs” and to help states sustain Medicaid. Mr. Vilsack said the cuts to SNAP won’t take place immediately and there should be time to revisit the reductions made as offsets should that prove necessary.

But SNAP advocates expressed concern. Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive officer of Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, said, “Sadly, a cut that will affect millions of families struggling to put food on the table has become little more than a footnote in the struggle to provide the same families with medical care and ensure teachers for their children’s schools. SNAP should not be used as an offset for anything, and any program that serves 40 million vulnerable Americans each month, nearly half of them children, deserves greater acknowledgement by both our legislators and the media.”

Ms. Escarra said Congress carefully crafted the SNAP increase authorized by the stimulus act to protect families from a “cliff effect.”

“By designing the increase to phase out incrementally as food prices rise to catch up with the higher benefit, Congress made a promise not to pull the rug out from underneath our nation’s most vulnerable families,” she asserted. “Under the proposed cut, this is exactly what would happen.”

John Weill, president, Food Research and Action Center, said, “The raid on SNAP must stop. These are real cuts with real impact on low-income households that for the first time will see their benefits fall from one month to the next. In recent days, a significant number of members of Congress pledged to restore the cuts. FRAC will work to hold them to this promise.”

Turning to the Senate’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Mr. Weill said, “It’s a child nutrition bill that will make children hungrier. The House must absolutely reject any further cuts in SNAP and pass its more robust version of child nutrition reauthorization (H.R. 5504).”

Jennifer Hatcher, senior vice-president of government and public affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, said the F.M.I. was pleased the Senate passed legislation to ensure low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals through the federal food programs but expressed disappointment with the Senate for cutting funding for the SNAP by $1.3 billion on top of the cuts already required by the jobs/Medicaid measure.

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