Food stamps holding up farm bill

Congress is considering changes to the $80 billion food stamp program, known as SNAP.

The lame-duck Congress has more than the so-called fiscal cliff to address. The farm bill extension expires at the end of the year. It has big implications for low-income Americans because the farm bill funds the food stamp program -- now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Four years ago, about 32 million people received benefits from the program. Now, SNAP covers 47 million Americans. The program costs the government a total of $40 billion a year. Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio is critical of the program’s expansion, and what he calls the "learned helplessness" that such programs instill in recipients:

“One in seven Americans now rely on the tax payers to take care of their nutrition needs. That is not healthy for our culture. Not healthy for our country. That needs to change,” says Jordan.

Jordan and fellow Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp would like to weed out those recipients who collect benefits even though they make too much income. Many states have waived the program’s asset requirement. So anyone without income qualifies for SNAP.

“We have out-of-control growth in food stamps,” says Congressman Huelskamp. “I would like to see the elimination of the categorical eligibility that pre-qualifies folks who may not otherwise qualify for food stamps.”

Huelskamp says that restricting SNAP eligibility to only those who truly need financial help could save tax payers $30 Billion over the next ten years. But others say the risk of fraud is overblown. Maura Daly is spokesperson for the hunger relief organization, Feeding America.

“SNAP is one of the most efficient programs with the highest rates of accuracy for any federal programs run,” says Daly. “Reducing the access as well as the availability of SNAP benefits for low-income families would really be catastrophic given the economic conditions that our nation is facing.”

Professor Craig Gundersen at the University of Illinois says the expansion of the SNAP program is nothing to worry about. “Whenever the economy goes bad, it expands. That’s what it’s designed to do,” says Gundersen. He says many states waived the asset requirement in order to encourage people to save money.

“We always look for government programs that are successful. And from my perspective, SNAP is an incredibly successful program,” says Gundersen. “It’s primary goal is to alleviate food insecurity and hunger in the United States. Study after study has shown that SNAP recipients, in comparison to non-eligible non-recipients, are much less likely to be food insecure. In other words, the program is helping out millions of Americans.”

And when recipients begin to earn more, the amount of their benefit decreases. “For every additional dollar of income that someone earns, they lose thirty cents in benefits,” says Gundersen.

The end of the year deadline isn’t completely final. In the past, when lawmakers couldn’t strike a compromise, they simply gave the farm bill an extension. It’s already been extended since the end of September. And Congress could kick that can down the road again.

“They can say, ‘Well, we can’t reach a good compromise, so let’s extend it through next September,’" says Bill Lapp, an agricultural consultant with Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. "So, a one year extension, in total, from last September 30th to the following September 30th would not be either extraordinary or have dire consequences.”

Lapp says extending the farm bill does create some headaches for farmers trying to plan for the coming year, and for the bankers who lend them money. Food stamps aren’t the only thing on the chopping block. Farmers may also lose some of their subsidies. Congressman Jordan says the agriculture industry has seen five of its best years ever, and commodity prices are high.

“Many of us in Congress are saying, ‘Let’s phase back the level of governmental involvement in agriculture. Let’s move more and more towards a market-oriented approach to this,'” says Jordan.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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