M. Spencer Green / AP Photo

House committees offer 'rethink' on SNAP

Republican-controlled committees hold hearings aimed at reassessing food stamp program

Over the past few years, Congress has trimmed billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. Now two committees in the Republican-controlled House are again scrutinizing the program, raising the possibility of further reforms.

The House Agriculture Committee has been staging hearings on the effectiveness of SNAP for months. On Thursday, the Ways and Means Committee — chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — got involved. Subcommittees from Agriculture and Ways and Means held a joint hearing titled “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP: How Our Welfare System Can Discourage Work."

Ryan, a former vice presidential candidate and influential figure on economic policy, has made overhauling the federal safety net, including SNAP, one of his signature issues. Last year he took a very public tour of impoverished U.S. neighborhoods and followed it up with a comprehensive proposal for reforming the country’s welfare system. That proposal included a call to fund SNAP through block grants and institute tougher work requirements for SNAP recipients.

On Thursday members of both subcommittees expressed concern that SNAP benefits could provide an incentive for people to drop out of the labor force. Some also mentioned block grants, a funding model through which states are allocated a particular amount of money per year earmarked for a specific benefit. The state is then left to decide how the money will be distributed, a model that proponents say gives state welfare agencies greater flexibility in deciding how best to serve them.

"Benefits can and should serve as a temporary bridge between jobs, or to supplement earnings when someone can find only part-time work. But those benefits need to reinforce, not undermine, the importance of work,” said Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany, R-La., in a statement following the hearing. "Redesigning welfare benefits to promote work is the key to helping people escape poverty.”

SNAP funding has risen steadily for decades. But it shot up dramatically in the aftermath of the Great Recession thanks to an emergency cash infusion included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a bill intended to blunt the economic impact of the 2008 financial collapse. Total annual benefits went from $34.6 billion in 2008 to $50.4 billion the following year, before peaking at $76.1 billion in 2013.

But over the past two years, the program has lost billions due to a series of legislative actions. First, Congress borrowed from SNAP’s coffers to finance a separate nutrition program, triggering an automatic $5 billion SNAP cut in November 2013. Three months later, President Barack Obama signed into law an agricultural spending bill that slashed billions more in SNAP benefits by targeting the relationship between food stamp benefits and low-income energy assistance subsidies.

At the same time, some governors have acted independently to shed food stamp beneficiaries from the rolls by reinstituting work requirements in their states.

Under federal law, able-bodied adults without dependents (or ABAWDs, as they’re known to the Department of Agriculture) must either work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a workfare program in order to access full SNAP benefits. Those who do neither are typically entitled to just three months’ worth of SNAP benefits every three years. However, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) may permit states to waive those requirements during periods of high unemployment.

As of last year, 36 states were eligible for such waivers according to the USDA. But more than a dozen of the governors who initially sought those waivers during the Great Recession have since asked for them to be rescinded.

Yet while the number of people served by SNAP and the average monthly benefits they receive have both dwindled, household food security — defined by the USDA as access to "enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” — has never returned to pre-recession levels. The most recent USDA figures show that 14.3 percent of U.S. households suffered from food insecurity in 2013, a nearly 30 percent increase compared to 2007. Meanwhile, food pantries around the country continue to report record levels of demand for their services.

Rep. Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the Nutrition Subcommittee and an outspoken critic of SNAP cuts, said during Thursday’s hearing that he has “a big problem” with block grants.

“Passing the buck to the states, finding more ways to avoid adequate investments in battling poverty, solves nothing,” he said in his opening remarks. “Cutting SNAP … these are the dangerous policies that have too often been presented by Republicans as solutions. These ideas make me nervous about what the majority is up to."

For his part, Paul Ryan praised the work done at the joint hearing.

"We need to rethink how to promote opportunity in this country, and I think this hearing made a great contribution to our work,” he said in a statement.

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