October 29, 2013

Food-stamp benefits will drop 5% for recipients as stimulus ends

By Derek Wallbank
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to let a temporary boost in food-stamp benefits end later this week for more than 47 million Americans.

The extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid was included in the 2009 economic-stimulus law. The aid subsidizes purchases by lower-income families. Food-stamp spending reached a record $78.4 billion in fiscal 2012 as annual average enrollment climbed 77 percent from 2007, government data show.

Unless a change is enacted before Nov. 1 — and none is scheduled for a vote in Congress — benefits for a family of four will fall by $36 a month, according to the Department of Agriculture. At maximum benefit levels in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, that works out to 5.4 percent less for that family of four.

"It's not going to get any easier for any of our families on Nov. 1," said Sarah LeStrange, a spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas in Austin, which serves 300,000 people a year. "They don't need that money less."

The drop in benefits is frustrating, LeStrange said.

"We can't tell people to call their representatives because it's too late," she said.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced a bill, H.R. 3108, to extend the aid increase through fiscal 2016. The measure, filed on Sept. 17, has 55 co-sponsors, all Democrats. It hasn't been scheduled for committee action.

Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, a member of a House- Senate panel working on a farm-subsidy bill that includes food stamps, H.R. 2642, said he expects no debate on reviving the higher level of benefits.

Ending the increase is settled and "it's the law," Conaway said.

Monthly enrollment for the aid peaked in December at 47.8 million and was 47.6 million in July, according to the most- recent USDA data. In 2007, about 26.3 million Americans received food stamps at a cost to taxpayers of about $33.2 billion, the data show.

Retailers such as supercenter operator Wal-Mart Stores and grocery discounters such as Aldi and SuperValu's Save-A-Lot chain benefit from the program, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis.

The House-Senate committee considering the larger legislation, known as the farm bill, is scheduled to meet for the first time on Wednesday. The two sides are furthest apart on funding food stamps.

Democrats who control the Senate would cut $4 billion over 10 years. Republicans who run the House would take out almost 10 times that much, $39 billion, over a decade. The House version also would require recipients to work or get job training, let states make drug testing a condition of eligibility and set food aid on a different authorization timeline from farm subsidies, a move to divorce food stamps from the farm bill entirely.

Though Democrats are now leading calls for the 2009 increase to be extended, the benefits were cut back to pay for other legislation by Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, according to a report from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.