Federal nutrition programs face dramatic cuts

by Jay Sjerven
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The House of Representatives on Sept. 19, by a vote of 217 to 210, passed the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act (H.R. 3102), which would cut about $40 billion over 10 years from federal nutrition assistance programs. Democratic members of the House were united in opposition to the bill they asserted would remove 3.8 million Americans from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2014. Fifteen Republicans also voted against the measure.

The bill fills the void left in the “farm-only” farm bill passed by the House before the August congressional recess. The revised Federal Agricultural Reform and Risk Management Act, which contained no nutrition title, was passed on a party-line vote on July 11. The initial version of FARRM, which proposed about $21 billion in nutrition program spending cuts over 10 years, was rejected a month earlier by the full House.

The original FARRM bill foundered because several conservative Republican members of the House voted against the measure because they thought it didn’t cut deeply enough into nutrition program spending, and Democrats opposed the legislation because they thought the cuts proposed were too severe. Democrats who objected to the extent of the nutrition cuts but who were prepared to vote for FARRM to move a farm bill into conference with the Senate, withdrew their support just ahead of the vote because of amendments that would have imposed restrictions or requirements on recipients of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Democrats viewed as excessive or demeaning.

The House leadership has held back from naming members to negotiate with the Senate on crafting a common farm bill that would be referred back to both houses of Congress for a final vote. The leaders first wanted House action on the nutrition bill and were expected to include the measure in any farm bill conference with the Senate.

The original FARRM bill as passed by the House agriculture committee but rejected by the full House had proposed about $21 billion in cuts to federal nutrition programs, whereas the Senate’s farm bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, proposed cuts of about $4 billion. So, H.R. 3102 would nearly double the cuts proposed in the original FARRM bill and would exact spending reductions 10 times greater than those agreed by the Senate in its farm bill.

To reach $40 billion in spending reductions over 10 years, H.R. 3102, in addition to including measures contained in the original FARRM bill, such as restricting categorical eligibility, which allowed states to make recipients of Temporary Assistance to Need Families benefits “categorically eligible” to receive SNAP benefits as well, goes much further.

The nutrition bill would eliminate the practice of issuing waivers to states that allows them during periods of high unemployment to provide SNAP benefits to certain “able-bodied adjust without dependents.” Under current law, adults between the ages of 18 through 49, who are not disabled or caring for children, are limited to three months of SNAP benefits out of every three years unless they meet a 20-hour per week work requirement or participate in a workfare or job training program. During periods of high unemployment, states may request authority to waive the limitations. H.R. 3102 would eliminate the practice and state authority. Instead, the bill would allow states to exempt from work or job-training requirements no more than 15% of those who meet the definition of “nondisabled adults age 18-49 in childless households.”

At the same time, the bill would reduce funding of employment and training programs, which was authorized under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 at $90 million each fiscal year, to $79 million per year (Section 120).

The nutrition bill would authorize states to conduct pilot projects to “reduce dependency and increase work effort” in SNAP. Under such pilot projects, states may remove exemptions from work requirements currently applying to certain adults. If the states through such projects are able to reduce spending on SNAP benefits, they would receive “amounts equal to one-half of the accumulated supplemental nutrition benefit dollars saved over each consecutive 12-month period.”

The nutrition bill also would prohibit government-sponsored efforts to encourage individuals to apply for SNAP benefits. Such efforts would include direct “recruitment” activities as well as television, radio or billboard advertisements designed to promote enrollment for benefits (Section 118).

The fate of the nutrition bill was uncertain given a veto threat from the president and opposition in the Senate to even considering the measure.

“The bill will never pass the Senate, and will never be signed by the president,” warned Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
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