Michael Adams, 13, right, hands off a buddy pack to volunteer Allyssa Morse as he and other 4-H club members fill bags at a Missouri food bank. (AP)
A long-overdue farm bill will change the way more than a dozen states issue food stamps and cut benefits for as many as 850,000 Americans. The legislation gained final approval from Congress Tuesday.
The compromise measure avoids some of the deep cuts proposed by Republicans in the House as the debate over the broader farm bill – which comprises crop insurance spending, farm subsidies and the food stamp program, among other issues – played out.
The debate came as enrollment and spending on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reached record levels. In the previous fiscal year, the U.S. spent more than $78 billion on the program and enrollment has regularly topped 47 million Americans since the Great Recession. To see how enrollment and costs have grown since 2000, see Stateline's infographic here.
The cuts in the final bill will end a practice that 16 states plus the District of Columbia used to streamline registration for their food stamp programs. Previously, states could use a utility-bill assistance program to reach more people for food stamps, and in the process boost the amount of food assistance they would receive each month. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress thought the practice should be ended or at least curtailed, and the change was included in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill before they were merged.
All together, the change will cut $8.55 billion in food stamp spending over the next decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated 850,000 recipients each year will see their benefits fall by about $90 a month as a result.
For now it's unclear how the pain of those cuts will fall among the states affected. But some of the states that previously employed the practice are among those with the highest levels of food stamp enrollment, including the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland and Oregon, where at least one in five residents collects food stamps. Populous states like New York, California, Pennsylvania and Michigan also used the practice.
The compromise reduction is more palatable to safety net advocates than the nearly $40 billion in cuts originally proposed, which would have potentially ended benefits entirely for nearly 4 million people in 2014 alone. Democrats in the Senate balked at any cuts that would end benefits for recipients.
The new reductions come on the heels of other cuts to the program, including a $5 billion reduction for all recipients that took effect last Nov. 1, cutting monthly benefits for a family of four by about $36. To see how those cuts affected each state individually, see Stateline's interactive data visualization here.
Individual states have pared their food stamp programs as well. At least eight states, for example, adopted a proposal floated by Republicans in Congress to re-enforce work requirements for able-bodied adults that had been relaxed during the recession. As many as 4 million Americans collected benefits thanks to the relaxed requirement during the recession.
Along with the change to states' food stamp enrollment program, the measure also includes clarifications on eligibility rules for people such as college students and lottery winners. It also includes a boost to program integrity efforts designed to limit benefit trafficking and other errors, the rate of which has fallen to record lows in recent years.
The White House has said President Obama will sign the bill.