Pennsylvania’s poor will be spared further cuts to their food stamps thanks to an unlikely source of aid: conservative Gov. Tom Corbett (R). Following the lead of governors in Connecticut and New York, Corbett will shuffle heating assistance payments around to forestall the complicated food stamps cuts imposed by the recently passed farm bill.
Corbett’s move will protect 400,000 families in his state from having their food stamps allotment cut. The farm bill included a roughly 1 percent cut to the food stamps budget, implemented through a change to how Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits are factored into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits formula. In Pennsylvania and 16 other so-called “heat and eat” states, many low-income people received a nominal $1 LIHEAP payment in order to get higher food stamps. The farm bill’s change would force a $90 per month cut to those families’ food budgets unless the states raised those LIHEAP payments to a new threshold of $20.
Raising the payments turns out to be a cost effective one for many states. In Corbett’s case, spending another $8 million of its low-income heating assistance program (LIHEAP) budget on “heat and eat” families will keep about $300 million in food stamps money from disappearing. Those in Pennsylvania affected by the farm bill change would have lost between $60 and $65 per month — roughly half of the average SNAP benefit per person in Pennsylvania.
Corbett is the third governor to take this step. Last week, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-CT) decided to spend $1.4 million in heating aid money to preserve nearly $70 million in food stamps benefits for about 50,000 people. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is spending about $6 million to preserve nearly half a billion dollars in food stamps money and spare 300,000 families from cuts.
More states could follow, according to Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association (NEADA). “Other states around the country will look at this and say, this makes a lot of sense. It’s not a red-blue thing, it’s a money thing,” Wolfe told ThinkProgress. While preserving heat-and-eat benefits takes money away from LIHEAP programs, Wolfe said the directors understand that anti-poverty programs are a cooperative patchwork that serves the many of the same people.
“It’s not so much a war between programs, it’s more an issue of how to help families and how to use the scarce resource you have,” Wolfe said. “Many of the people that run these programs work very closely with the people that run food stamps and Head Start, they know what those programs go through, they’re trying to help the same families.”
Wolfe would not hazard a guess as to which of the 14 other governors of heat-and-eat states might follow Corbett, Malloy, and Cuomo. The Democratic leaders of Vermont and Massachusetts have reportedly considered the measure, but Corbett is the first Republican to defy Congress’s attempt to cut food stamps.
The farm bill’s reduction came on top of an automatic $5 billion cut last November. Democrats who supported the farm bill cut defended it as a compromise that did not boot anyone off of the program entirely, and the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities singled out the heat-and-eat policy as a loophole that should be closed. But critics noted that the food stamps cut was attached to a farm bill that did next to nothing meaningful to reform corporate welfare for the agricultural industry and Wall Street, even though those programs have much higher fraud and overpayment rates than SNAP. Rationale aside, the reality of the law was going to be painful for families already struggling to get by on less than $1.40 per person per meal.
The Congressional Budget Office projected that the change would reduce benefits for 850,000 households in heat-and-eat states. That estimate was based on the assumption that some governors would fight the change by goosing LIHEAP payment levels, according to experts ThinkProgress talked to, but it’s not clear just how many states the budget counters expected to push back. If the Malloy-Cuomo-Corbett approach catches on more broadly, much of the pain of the farm bill could be avoided.