House Republicans plan to vote Wednesday on the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, the remaining half of the policy traditionally referred to as the farm bill that would deal with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps). The House passed the portion that relates more directly to agriculture in July.
Here’s what you need to know about how this week’s action in the House will affect hunger and poverty in America.
What changes are Republicans proposing for food assistance programs? The bill scheduled for a Wednesday vote cuts $40 billion from food stamps over the coming decade. While that is just a 5.2 percent reduction from what the program is projected to spend under current rules, it would affect millions of the most vulnerable people in the country. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates between 4 and 6 million people would lose their food assistance benefits under the proposal. The text of the bill hasn’t been released, but it will reportedly derive its cuts from the same sorts of changes to eligibility that were proposed by House conservatives earlier this summer. Those include both a more extreme version of the Senate’s changes to the application process for food stamps and work requirements provisions that doomed the original House farm bill last time. At present, families who are enrolled in other forms of federal assistance such as heating oil vouchers can enroll more easily in SNAP, but the House bill would end that streamlined process. Conservatives argue that tighter restrictions are necessary due to fraud and waste in food stamps, but food stamp audits routinely show that the program wastes less money and is less vulnerable to fraud than the crop insurance system those same conservatives reauthorized in July.
Where will the 6 million people who lose nutritional assistance turn for food? Private charities say they will not be able to pick up the slack House conservatives intend to create with the $40 billion cut to food stamps. Food banks and soup kitchens are already stretched beyond their capacity by unusually high poverty and unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession. It is therefore highly likely that hunger will become more common in America than it already is. Currently one in seven families — totaling 49 million people, 8 million of whom are children — face food insecurity. Child hunger is already so common that three in four teachers report that their students show up to class hungry on a regular basis.
What would SNAP cuts mean for the economy? Hunger among students reduces educational attainment, which comes with long-term costs for the country that likely exceed the short-term savings conservatives seek from food assistance programs. Furthermore, the SNAP program is one of the most efficient forms of economic stimulus the government can employ. The program returns close to $2 of economic activity for every dollar spent. Cutting the program is therefore likely to create a drag on the recovery. In 2011 alone, the program lifted nearly 5 million people out of poverty.
Why weren’t food stamps handled along with the rest of the farm bill this summer? Prior to this summer, nutrition programs had always been wrapped up with agricultural programs in the farm bill. Some lawmakers refer to the nutrition matters as the “nutrition title,” since it has traditionally been a section of the farm bill rather than a standalone law. House leaders effectively doomed the decades-long marriage of agriculture and nutrition policy in June when they endorsed an amendment attaching harmful, redundant work requirements to SNAP. The amendment doomed Democratic support yet also failed to secure enough Republican votes for final passage of the farm bill. Rather than try to re-craft a farm bill that could win majority support, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-OH) opted to split the nutrition and agricultural portions into separate legislation.
What happens next? Once the House passes a nutrition bill, the two House bills and the Senate farm bill will have to be reconciled. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who chairs the Agriculture Committee in the upper chamber, has warned that the House’s split approach to the farm bill threatens to undermine the whole of American food policy. The Senate has passed a farm bill that cuts $4 billion, or 0.5 percent, from the food stamps budget over a decade. Those cuts will form one anchor to any reconciliation process between the two legislative bodies, and the House legislation will form the other. Meanwhile, there are already automatic cuts coming to the program in November when a Recovery Act provision expires.