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House, Senate Consider Cuts In Food Stamp Program


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Food stamps are used by one in seven Americans. The average recipient receives about $133 a month. Now if that sounds hard to live on, the House and Senate are considering steep cuts in food stamp program - or SNAP benefits, as they're known - as part of a major farm bill. Depending on one's perspective, the cuts would either reform the program by closing loopholes, or cause severe hardship for hungry children and senior citizens. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Right now, more than 47 million people get what are called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or SNAP, benefits. It costs almost $80 billion a year, making it one of the biggest government programs. It's also made it one of the biggest targets for those who want to cut government spending.

REPRESENTATIVE REID RIBBLE: SNAP is twice as much money we're spending on our inter Department of Homeland Security. It is three times what we're spending on Department of Justice. It is seven times what we are spending on Department of Interior.

FESSLER: That's Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble during a House committee debate last week. Ribble says it's good that the government feeds the hungry.

RIBBLE: But it's also good and right and just that we as the fiduciaries of the taxpayers who are paying those dollars, that we're overseeing them in a way that is truly balanced.

FESSLER: So, House Republicans have proposed cutting the program by $20 billion over 10 years. They would no longer allow low-income individuals to automatically qualify for food stamps because they get other government aid, such as welfare. And they'd eliminate programs to increase SNAP enrollment, such as ad campaigns and incentive payments to states. Republicans call these common sense reforms. Not so, say Democrats.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: This is not about reform. These aren't thoughtful, innovative cuts in this bill. These are just cuts.

FESSLER: Jim McGovern of Massachusetts says the changes will mean more hunger in America.

MCGOVERN: They're going to hurt people. And we're not going to save money in the long run. You're just going to make more poor people more vulnerable and more miserable.

FESSLER: But his effort to get the committee to restore the cuts failed. The congressional budget office estimates that the changes would mean almost two million fewer SNAP recipients. That's a fact that anti-hunger groups hope to use to fight the cuts when the House considers the bill next month.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Senator from Michigan.

SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: I would ask to call for decorum(ph) call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Without objection.

FESSLER: The Senate began debating its version of the bill this week. It calls for smaller SNAP reductions - about $400 million a year - but the cuts are still controversial. Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, says they'd largely involve closing loopholes.

STABENOW: We create savings by looking at areas where there has been abuse or misuse by a few states on one policy, and by individuals or retailers in other areas, and we tighten that up.

FESSLER: The bill would prevent those with big lottery or gambling winnings from getting SNAP benefits. It would also prevent states from getting low-income individuals as little as a dollar a month in utility aid through a program called LIHEAP so they qualify for higher monthly food stamp benefits. Critics say states are taking advantage of a big loophole.

JAMES ZILIAK: I don't view it as a loophole, but I do view it as perhaps a liberal interpretation of the use of the LIHEAP program.

FESSLER: James Ziliak is director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. He says states use such maneuvers, in part, to boost food stamp use among senior citizens who often don't apply for benefits even if they're eligible. He says some things that look like loopholes are really effort to streamline government aid for the poor. He thinks the proposed changes will hurt.

ZILIAK: These are real cuts. This is not trimming around the edges. These are potentially real cuts, especially in the House bill.

FESSLER: Efforts to make similar cuts in the Senate bill were defeated yesterday on the Senate but so too was an effort to eliminate the Senate cuts all together. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.


WERTHEIMER: Thus is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.