Sunday, 15 February 2015 00:00

Republicans Eye Changes to Food-Stamp Program

Written by  Tennille Tracy | WSJ
A woman pays for groceries in January using a food-stamp program at a supermarket in West New York, NJ A woman pays for groceries in January using a food-stamp program at a supermarket in West New York, NJ Associated Press
House Republicans are laying the groundwork for a revision of the food-stamps program after its sharp expansion during the recession. The effort kicks off Feb. 25 when the House Agriculture Committee holds the first of several hearings scheduled this year on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas), who is leading the charge, said he wants to stay away from the type of party politics that can doom reforms before they are proposed. But as the son of a roughneck on oil rigs, he said he favors the kind of hard work that “built America,” suggesting any changes will lead to a smaller program and fewer recipients.

“A family that depends on their own work is more secure,” he said in an interview. “There’s a dignity in taking care of yourself.”

Some 46.5 million people—about 15% of the U.S. population—receive benefits, double the number from a decade ago. The costs, meanwhile, have nearly tripled in that time, going from $27 billion in fiscal year 2004 to $74 billion in 2014.

Mr. Conaway said it is too early to talk of specific changes, but critics cite a need for tighter eligibility requirements. Under current limits, a family of four earning less than $2,584 in gross monthly income can qualify.

“The program was structured when malnutrition was a real problem,” said Douglas Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. “It has now become a form of income support.”

The program dates back to the 1930s, when unemployment was high, and was made permanent in 1964.

States, which manage the Agriculture Department program, are already starting to cut back. More than 20 are preparing to reinstate time limits that most states had waived in the recession. Healthy adults without children will be limited to three months of benefits every three years unless they are working or enrolled in job training for at least 20 hours a week.

The move to reinstate those limits could end benefits for about 1 million people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank specializing in low-income policies.

“It was and still is a well-functioning program,” said Ed Bolen, a food-stamp expert at the center. “But we need to figure out what works and for whom.”

Mr. Bolen said critics often assume recipients don’t want to work, although many are employed. USDA data show nearly 43% of recipients live in a household where someone is earning.

Democrats are likely to fight moves to cut benefits and make them tougher to get. Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the Obama administration should push back against any cuts to food stamps. “We cannot balance the budget on the backs of poor people,” he said.

As the economic recovery continues, the Congressional Budget Office projects the number of recipients will drop 30% to 33 million by 2025. Already, rolls shrank by more than 1 million between fiscal 2013 and 2014.

This won’t be the first time Republicans have addressed the issue of food stamps. In 2013, they tried to cut the program by $40 billion as part of the farm-bill reauthorization. A compromise with Democrats yielded $8.6 billion in cuts over 10 years, achieved by tightening standards for the so-called heat-and-eat program, under which food-stamp recipients qualify for higher benefits if they get heating assistance from their states.

Congress includes food-stamp funding in the farm bill because it is believed that lawmakers from large cities need a reason to approve money for agriculture.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he plans to keep a “close eye” on efforts to rework the program. “Finding out what’s broken is the first step, then we’ll get to work on improving the program,” he said in a statement.

According to the Agriculture Department, the average recipient receives about $125 a month. The money, uploaded to a debit card that can be used at grocery stores, can’t be used for alcohol, cigarettes and prepared foods. Some say the government should toughen nutrition requirements to ban purchases of soda and other sweetened beverages.

“I think it’s worthy to ask what people are buying,” said Robert Doar, an expert on poverty issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Nearly 40% of recipients are able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 60, according to 2013 government data. The rest are children, elderly or disabled adults. The average gross income for all recipient households is $758 a month.

The department is close to awarding $200 million in grants to states to experiment with ways to get recipients into jobs. That could provide data on what works, something Mr. Conaway said is lacking. “We really have a hard time saying whether the program is successful,” he said.

Mr. Conaway figures that writing a bill to overhaul food stamps will take months, if not years. The time will be needed, he said, to persuade lawmakers to change the biggest nutrition safety-net program without defaulting to old political debates that pit one party against the other.

Link to the original article from WSJ.

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