Oregon will shuffle money around within its anti-poverty programs in order to shelter 141,000 of its poorest residents from cuts to their food stamps, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) announced Thursday.
Oregon is one of the 17 states affected by the $8 billion SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) cut in the recently passed farm bill and the fourth to take steps to forestall the cuts. The steps that it’s taking along with Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut to stymie the cuts involve the complicated formula that program administrators use to figure out who is eligible and how much they get from the food stamps program. The farm bill changed the rules for how poor families’ electrical utility costs get factored into the food stamps calculation. Under the previous rules, even a single dollar of Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) money triggered higher food assistance, and 17 so-called “heat and eat” states issued nominal LIHEAP payments to needy families to streamline program administration costs. The new farm bill says that families must receive at least $20 in LIHEAP to trigger that same adjustment to their food stamps allowance, a move that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects to result in significant benefit reduction for roughly 1.7 million people in those states.
But it turns out that it is cost effective for some states to ramp up LIHEAP spending in order to retain current levels of SNAP funding for their most vulnerable families. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) is shuffling $1.4 million in LIHEAP funds to about 50,000 “heat-and-eat” beneficiaries in order to retain almost $70 million in SNAP money for those same people. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is spending $6 million in LIHEAP to save $457 million in SNAP, sheltering 300,000 families from food cuts. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) announced last week that $8 million in LIHEAP shuffling will preserve $300 million in food stamps for 400,000 families. The numbers look similarly appealing in Oregon. Kitzhaber will reallocate $2 million in heating aid money and retain $56 million in food stamps.
Kitzhaber probably won’t be the last governor to run the numbers and take this step, either. “Other states around the country will look at this and say, this makes a lot of sense,” National Energy Assistance Directors Association head Mark Wolfe previously told ThinkProgress. “It’s not a red-blue thing, it’s a money thing.”
Low-income families in all 50 states had already had their food stamp benefits cut significantly a few months earlier when a Recovery Act provision expired in November, dropping the average SNAP check amount to less than $1.40 per person per meal.
While critics view the move Kitzhaber, Corbett, Cuomo, and Malloy are making as a giveaway to the poor that violates Congress’ intent in the farm bill, there is a wealth of evidence to support these governors’ defiance. For one thing, experts say, many of the families who receive the nominal LIHEAP payment do indeed have utility costs that are difficult to establish clearly because they live in multi-family homes or have their utilities baked into their rent payments. At a practical level, therefore, these are deserving families. And at the big picture level, SNAP recipients are already so close to the edge that the $90 per month cut that the farm bill was supposed to bring would push them over.
Meanwhile, food charities are already overstretched at current funding levels, so cuts would deepen the country’s hunger crisis, with serious and long-running consequences for Americans’ health and future economic prospects. SNAP has the lowest rate of fraud and overpayment of any federal benefits program, compared to the error-riddled agricultural industry giveaways that Congress renewed in the same bill that cut food aid to the poor.
What’s more, the cost of the food stamps program is already declining as the economy improves. Congress could achieve a far greater reduction in food stamps costs by raising the minimum wage than it could by simply taking money away from poor people.