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Food stamps dividing support for farm bill

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Margo Rush goes to FoodNet in the basement of the Lakeview Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb., to make her budget and SNAP benefits last through the month. (Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
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Grant Gerlock is Harvest Public Media's reporter based at NET News in Lincoln, Neb.

With Congress going back into session, farm groups are demanding action on a new farm bill. The current law expires at the end of September. But an issue that goes beyond the farm is edging in on the debate.

The House and Senate are at odds over cuts to food stamps, which dominate spending in the farm bill. In the past, the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), broadened the base of support for the farm bill and helped urban and rural lawmakers reach consensus.

“The idea was not every district, every state is involved heavily in agriculture, but probably almost every district, every state is involved in food stamp kinds of things,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That strategy is not working out in 2012. Both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House would make cuts to SNAP. The version passed by the Senate would cut $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House is looking at cutting $16 billion over 10 years from the program (PDF). Supporters say the deep cuts from the House are needed to control spending, but critics feel it’s wrong to make cuts when more people than ever are asking for help.

Helping the hungry

The number of people receiving SNAP benefits has set records through the economic downturn, reaching 46.7 million people in June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of those people is 70-year-old Margo Rush of Lincoln, Neb., who receives $65 each month in SNAP benefits, but said she still has to be cautious about overspending at the supermarket.

“You’ve got to be very careful,” Rush said. “Like (buying only) half a dozen eggs. It’s bad. It’s hard.”

To stretch her food budget, Rush goes to Lakeview Methodist Church where a local non-profit distributes food weekly. There she can pick from boxes of produce pulled from grocery store shelves, and servings of leftovers shared by a local hospital cafeteria.

Without the extra help, Rush, who lives on a fixed income of $600 per month, said it would be difficult to afford her other bills.

“Rent. Electricity. My car. If I want to go anywhere it takes gas,” Rush said.

As more people like Rush turn to SNAP to afford food, the cost to the federal government has increased dramatically. From 2007 to 2011, annual spending on SNAP more than doubled to $78 billion.

Debating the cost of assistance

Many Republicans in the House of Representatives are alarmed by the sharp, upward spending curve for food stamps. Katherine Bradley, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, agrees with efforts to bring those costs in check.

“Every time a state finds somebody to sign up for food stamps they are reimbursed by the federal government,” Bradley said. “So spending on the program continually goes up, up, up, up, depending on how many people they find.”

States are finding more people because of the recession and because of a change in the SNAP program’s rules. Since 2002, states have had more options to enroll people with a little higher income than usual, or more assets to fall back on, like savings, a house, or a car. Dozens of states raised their limits, including Nebraska and Iowa.

“A lot of people who have lost their jobs don’t have any income, but they still have a lot of assets,” Bradley said. “A lot of people are being signed up for food stamps who wouldn’t ordinarily be eligible.”

To make sure people start by spending what they have, the House farm bill would reinstate the basic federal guidelines for food stamps, limiting support to families with incomes under 130 percent of poverty and with less than $2,000 in assets.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates nearly two million people would lose food stamp support under the House cuts.

Those people would be more likely to slide into poverty as a result, according to Dorothy Rosenbaum, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“(Expanding SNAP eligibility) primarily helps recently unemployed families who don’t have to spend down their assets before they can access food assistance and also senior citizens who may be on a fixed income and have modest assets squirreled away for rainy day that they would have a difficult time replenishing,” Rosenbaum said.

Farm bill politics

While food stamps may have helped urban and rural lawmakers agree on a farm bill in the past, this year it has become a point of contention, and part of a larger election-year debate over the deficit and how to help the middle class.

For instance, the Republican Party platform would transform SNAP into a block-grant program to control costs while President Obama’s budget would maintain current support for the program.

John Hibbing at UNL said those budget debates make it harder to reach consensus on the farm bill in 2012, when control of the Senate and White House are in play.

“Given the pressures on budgetary matters and the general ideological timbre of the times, the willingness to let the other side go with theirs is not there,” Hibbing said.

The farm bill is so large whether the Senate cuts $4 billion from SNAP or the House cuts $16 billion, about 80 percent of the farm bill would still help poor Americans buy food.

But the $12 billion that separates Senate Democrats and House Republicans could make a difference in how a farm bill gets passed and, potentially how millions of Americans put food on the table.