Heat or Something to Eat? New SNAP Rules Might Force Poor Families to Choose

The Senate is expected to vote on the Farm Bill today, which could reach President Obama’s desk later this week. A new version of the bill, which comes up for reauthorization every five years, has been delayed for two years; Congress has simply been renewing the most recent farm bill for short periods of time while the House and Senate fought over the details in the new one.

Most of the fights were over agricultural subsidies, but most of the spending in the $100-billion-a-year bill goes to the program formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Participation has more than doubled since the start of the recession—from 20 million every month to about 47 million every month—largely because more people qualify for aid. That has led to attacks on the program from conservatives who said the spending levels were “unsustainable,” and the House of Representatives voted in September to cut food stamps by $40 billion. The Senate voted to cut it by $4 billion. In the end, the president will consider a bill that cuts the program by $8.6 billion over 10 years.

Most of these cuts are achieved by changing the way benefits are calculated for certain families in about 16 states. The number of food stamps each family gets every month is determined by a complicated formula that takes income and household size into account. Families are allowed certain deductions for spending on things like childcare, rent, and utilities. It’s the utilities part that’s important here. As part of the 2008 farm bill, benefits to some families were increased when they received help paying for their winter heating bill. So if families received as little as $1 in heating assistance, they might get more in SNAP benefits than they would have if they didn’t receive the $1 in help. The new bill doesn’t let anyone who gets less than $10 annually in utility assistance get these extra benefits.

On its face, that seems reasonable. It may seem like Congress is correcting a problem in which families got more help than they needed. In reality, the food assistance most families get is too low, not too high.  According to the government’s own data, families have used 75 percent of their benefits by the end of the second week after they’ve received them. Most families are stretching too few benefits and too little income over the course of their week; they can’t feed their children the nutritious food they know they need. On average, the end of this heating assistance-food stamp cooperation, known colloquially as “heat and eat,” will cost beneficiaries about $26 a month. This is on top of a cut families saw when a temporary boost to food stamps provided for in the 2009 stimulus bill was allowed to expire November 1. The food stamp program has a high price tag, but a growing percentage of Americans are reporting that they spend some part of the month hungry or struggling to find food. It’s clear which issue Congress has decided is more important.