WASHINGTON — Congress last month passed a revamp of agriculture and food policy that was supposed to save the U.S. government $8.6 billion in food-stamp costs over a decade. That may not happen now that some states are finding a way to avoid the cuts.
New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are triggering extra nutrition spending by adding money to a home-heating subsidy tied to increased food-stamp aid.
The move feeds needy families while thwarting spending-reduction goals.
Deficit watchers say they’re disappointed, while anti-hunger activists are lobbying other states to do the same. If more follow, the federal government would have to spend much of the $8.6 billion it planned to save, as states reduce spending on other programs to meet the new mandate.
“Some states will be able to do it, some states will not be able to. No one knows for how long they’ll be able to do it,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said in an interview at the Capitol. “They have jumped into the breach where the federal government abdicated its responsibility.”
Federal spending on food stamps — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — has more than doubled in the past five years. The program cost a record $79.9 billion in fiscal 2013, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year Americans spend on groceries.
Some of that food aid is tied to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Under the previous farm law, states that gave residents as little as $1 a year in home-heating assistance — a move nicknamed “heat-and-eat” — could qualify that person’s household for an average of $1,080 in additional food stamps annually from the U.S. government.
About 15 states and the District of Columbia did just that, catching the attention of lawmakers who sought savings through the farm bill.
“States were gaming the system,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said last month.
The new law raises to $20 a year the home-heating aid needed for a household to get extra food-stamp money. The idea is that most of those 15 states will stop qualifying residents for the food aid and save the U.S. government money.
That’s not happening in New York. The state said it raised home-heating spending by $6 million, triggering an additional $457 million a year in federal food-stamp spending to about 300,000 households.
Lawmakers who supported even deeper cuts to food stamps than those eventually included in the farm law criticize states for using the rules to erode savings.
“We didn’t expect that or we would’ve written it in the language to prohibit it,” said Iowa Republican Steve King, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees food stamps and nutrition aid. The move, while legal, is “perverse, just perverse,” King said in an interview.
States pushing to maintain the aid call it necessary.
Meanwhile, budget watchdogs who supported the cuts aren’t pleased either.
“True reform would have included stringent work requirements for food-stamp eligibility,” said Andy Roth, government affairs vice president with Club for Growth, a Washington small-government advocacy group. “Even better, devolve the program back to the states” as block grants, which would end the temptation to exploit quirks in federal law, he said.