Over a million families will escape food stamp cuts thanks to the growing number of governors who are taking steps to negate the complicated safety net cut built into the recent farm bill. In the past week, the leaders of Rhode Island, Montana, and Massachusetts each announced they would block the cuts for roughly 235,000 households across the three states.
Combined with the families shielded in Connecticut (50,000), Oregon (100,000), New York (300,000), and Pennsylvania (400,000), these states bring the total number of households that will be protected from food stamp cuts to 1,084,000. It remains to be seen whether the seven other states affected by the farm bill’s changes to the so-called “heat and eat” rules for calculating benefits will join in stymieing the cuts. But Vermont is reportedly exploring similar actions, as is the District of Columbia.
In total, the states will spend less than $22 million from their heating aid budgets to save $1.09 billion for their hungry families. The change works by taking advantage of the complexities of the farm bill cut. Lawmakers changed the threshold amount of money a family must receive from the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in order to trigger higher benefits. Congress raised that threshold amount from $1 to $20 in the farm bill. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, the programs are linked so that poor families who struggle to pay their utility bills will get a bit more generous help with the groceries than families who don’t face utility hardship.
Nearly half of those states have now announced plans to bump LIHEAP benefits up to $20 in order to retain their current food assistance levels for eligible families. That is prompting outcry from conservative proponents of safety net cuts. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) accused the seven states of finding “ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps.”
But no one new is getting signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) in these states. Instead, current recipients are being protected from steep cuts to the amount of food assistance they get each month. Originally expected to average $90 per month for each affected household, the cuts would amount to roughly 18 percent of the maximum food budget that SNAP gives a family of three.
States can do this because Congress didn’t close this so-called loophole; it simply made the hole narrower. Rather than breaking the linkage between LIHEAP and SNAP completely, lawmakers raised the threshold for LIHEAP benefits that trigger higher SNAP benefits.
And according to state program administrators, what they’re doing isn’t just legal but fully in keeping with the spirit of the law. After all, they say, they are going through the same verification process for determining which families get the utility allowance. “Pennsylvania has and will continue to determine if a household qualifies” for the automatic boost to SNAP benefits, as the state Department of Public Welfare put it in an email to ThinkProgress.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the farm bill cuts would ultimately affect 850,000 households across 16 states and the District. A food policy expert told ThinkProgress that the projection factored in states protecting their residents from cuts, which would mean that the 1.08 million households spared so far by these seven governors does not cancel it out. The CBO did not respond to a request for clarification on that point. There are nearly 2 million households in the seven remaining “heat and eat” states that could potentially be affected by the farm bill cuts, according to numbers in a report last year from the Congressional Research Service.