House Republicans approved nearly $40 billion in cuts to the food stamps program Thursday evening in a tight 217–210 vote. Fifteen Republicans defected to vote “no” on the measure, which is projected to kick millions of people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates Thursday’s cuts will bump at least 4 million and up to 6 million people out of the program, and even the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates 3.8 million would lose benefits next year with an additional 2.8 million losing them each year on average over the decade.
The bill passed Thursday seeks to pare back food stamp participation by changing eligibility requirements in a few different ways. In addition to adding work requirements modeled on the reforms that helped cripple the efficacy of welfare, the Republican bill ends something called “categorical eligibility” whereby people enrolled in other low-income safety net benefits can skip much of the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in applying for food stamps. While categorical eligibility reduces administrative costs in the program, Republicans argue that it makes federal anti-hunger spending too generous. The program provides $133 per month on average and is already scheduled for a significant cut in November as a stimulus provision expires. Furthermore, constraining eligibility for SNAP will mean some hungry people get hungrier: Nearly half of the country’s 50 million hungry people have pre-tax incomes high enough to make them ineligible for SNAP without categorical eligibility, according to Feeding America, and nearly a third earn more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level income.
The House cuts amount to about 5 percent of the projected ten-year cost of SNAP, which currently serves one in seven Americans as the jobs crisis brought on by the financial crisis continues. Enrollment in SNAP tracks with the health of the economy, as safety net programs are designed to do, but Republicans have repeatedly insisted that there is something untoward about the rapid expansion of the food stamp rolls in the worst economy the country has seen in about eight decades.
SNAP is one of the three most effective anti-poverty programs the government has, keeping 4 million people out of poverty last year alone. The cuts Republicans propose are likely to create greater costs down the road than what they save the government in the near term.
The House and Senate must now reconcile their positions on SNAP, which the top agricultural policymaker in the Senate has warned will be very difficult on the shortened timeline House leaders have created by waiting until mid-September to act on food assistance. The Senate’s farm bill included a $4 billion cut to SNAP, meaning that cuts in some amount are likely should the two chambers manage to strike a deal.