WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives has narrowly passed a bill to cut $4 billion a year from programs mainly aimed at preventing hunger. Projected savings over 10 years would amount to $40 billion.
Republican House leadership said the measure will restrain the explosive growth of the programs and encourage more people to go back to work. But Democratic opponents said it harms the neediest at a time when poverty levels are stubbornly high and jobs are hard to come by.
The largest part of the federal anti-hunger safety net is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP (formerly called the Food Stamp program) helps people who fall below a certain income level to pay for groceries.
The number of people receiving SNAP benefits nearly doubled with the latest recession, from 28 million in 2008 to 47 million last year. Spending on the program doubled along with it, to $75 billion in 2012.
But Republican critics note that while the economy has improved somewhat in the last few years, SNAP enrollment has continued to grow.
“It is imperative that Congress takes steps to rein in this out-of-control entitlement, and I believe this bill does that,” said Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp during debate on the bill in the House. Huelskamp led efforts to require that beneficiaries work in order to receive benefits.
“If you’re a healthy adult and don’t have somebody relying on you to care for them, you ought to earn the benefits you receive,” Huelskamp said. “You can no longer sit on your couch and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”
The bill requires recipients to work 20 hours per week, get job training or do community service.
Along with other tightened eligibility requirements, 3.8 million people would lose SNAP benefits.
No overwhelming support
The bill passed by a vote of 217 to 210 with no Democrats voting in favor. They objected that the tepid economic recovery has not reached lower-income people.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this week shows 1 in 6 Americans, or 49 million people, live in poverty, and that rate has not dropped since 2006, even though the economy has recently improved somewhat.
Economists have questioned the timing of the proposed cuts to the safety net. University of Kentucky economist James Ziliak said the economy’s slow growth is unprecedented. “Three years after the end of a recession we still aren’t knocking down poverty,” he said. “Wages aren’t growing. There’s a lot of lingering weakness in the labor market.”
On the House floor, Washington state Democrat Suzan DelBene said if the jobs aren’t there, “This bill would force states to cut off people struggling to find a job.” She said it also strips them of transportation and child care assistance, and cuts employment and training programs.
“House leadership says this bill will lead to more people working. But how does cutting programs proven to help people find jobs accomplish this? All this bill does is cut the lifeline for 3.8 million hungry American families, children, veterans and seniors,” DelBene said.
The work requirement was part of SNAP before the recession hit, but states could ask for a waiver if unemployment was too high.
“Not surprisingly, with the Great Recession starting in 2007, this was a widespread phenomenon,” says University of Kentucky economist James Ziliak.
The Obama administration lifted the requirement for all states.
The bill, passed along party lines, no longer permits states to apply for waivers.
Ziliak says, “This new policy is, in effect, taking this flexibility away from states when their local economy might be in a particularly bad way.”
The House and the Democratic-led Senate will now have to work out the differences between their two bills before sending a final version to President Obama. The differences are vast. The Senate bill, passed in June, cut $4 billion from nutrition programs, one-tenth of what the House calls for.
The House also broke with decades of tradition and split the SNAP and nutrition programs off from a larger Farm Bill that includes agriculture subsidies and conservation programs. The House passed the farm section in July.
The day before the House vote, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, made it clear that the Senate has no intention of passing $40 billion in nutrition cuts.
“What the House Republicans are voting on is nothing more than an extremely divisive, extremely partisan political exercise that is, by the way, going nowhere,” she said.
President Obama has also threatened to veto the House version of the bill.