Danielle Brown shops after midnight at One Stop Food store on the south side of Chicago in 2008. The market doors open at midnight on the first of each month for the express purpose of letting her and a dozen or so others to start shopping the instant they have access to the new month's allotment of food stamps.AP2008
The House voted Thursday to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation's main feeding program used by more than one in seven Americans.
If the bill goes through, many say it will harm millions of Americans who rely on Supplemental Food Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) to feed themselves and their families.
"It will just mean we don't eat as much," Chet Fuller, 71, an army veteran in Washington told Al Jazeera. "(We will) cut down from two meals a day to one meal one day, and two meals the next."
Fuller receives $116 in nutrition assistance each month. He says any cuts to that would make it hard for him to get by.
The 217-210 vote was a win for conservatives, but President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill.
The House bill aims to save $4 billion by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The proposed work requirements would allow states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child over the age of 1 if that person has child care available. The requirements would be applicable to all parents whose children are over the age of 6 and attending school.
The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80-billion-a-year program has become bloated.
But to 26-year-old Crystal Harris, the food stamp program is anything but bloated. She says it's not even sufficient.
"My food stamps, they go by fast," Harris, who lives in Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera. "I would tell (Congress) to think about it as if you were in our shoes … would you still do that?"
Harris says she needs the food stamps to feed herself and child. And she’s not alone.
More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program's cost has more than doubled in the past five years as Americans struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.
Finding a compromise -- and the votes -- to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. Conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats opposed any cuts and some moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program.
Republican leaders emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don't have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.
"This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most," Cantor said on the floor just before the bill passed. "And most people don't choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job ... They want what we want."
The legislation is the House's effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren't enough. That bill included about $2 billion in cuts annually.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill would come later, with deeper cuts.
In order to negotiate the bill with the Senate, Republicans said Thursday that one more step is needed -- the House will have to hold a procedural vote to allow both the farm and food stamp bills to go to a House-Senate conference together. It is unclear if Republicans who pushed to split the two bills will oppose that effort.
Once the bills get to that conference, negotiations with the Senate will not be an easy task. Analysts are skeptical that a compromise farm bill can be written that would pass in the sharply partisan Congress.
Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Democrat-controlled Senate Agriculture Committee, called the House bill "a monumental waste of time" that would never become law.
A Senate farm bill passed in June would only make a tenth of the cuts to food stamps, or $400 million, and the White House has issued a veto threat against the bill. The two chambers will also have to agree on policy for farm subsidies amid disputes between different crops.
Every single Democrat voting on Thursday opposed the bill. Many took to the floor with emotional appeals.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the bill is a "full assault on the health and economic security of millions of families." Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett called it the "let them starve" bill.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that House Republicans are attempting to "literally take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans in order to, again, achieve some ideological goal."
The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
Tonya Mosley and Stephanie Stanton contributed to this report. With wire services.