Some States Find Ways To Restore Cut Food Stamp Funding

This month, a new round of food stamp cuts is set to take effect. The farm bill passed last month closed a loophole called "Heat and Eat," saving the country about $8.5 billion over the next decade. Some states have found a way to restore that funding.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Last month, President Obama made a special trip to Michigan to sign the farm bill, finally passed after two years of disagreement in Congress. One important clause said to take effect this month is a major cut to food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cuts would affect about 850,000 households, saving about $8.5 billion over the next 10 years. That cut was achieved by closing what some see as a loophole regarding who qualifies for the program.

Craig LeMoult of member station WSHU reports at least two states are trying to rescue funding by opening that loophole back up.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Patricia Stuart of New Haven visited a food pantry this week for some help with her groceries. She gets $189 a month in food stamps. When the farm bill passed, it meant Stuart was due for a cut.

PATRICIA STUART: I really don't know how I would have been able to purchase, you know, the things that I need. And I'm one person. So God forbid the people with children.

LEMOULT: But Connecticut's Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy managed to stop that cut in food stamps, benefits that are provided by a federal program called SNAP. Stuart says she wants to give him a hug.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: And tell him thank you, because, you know, it's hard. It's really hard.

LEMOULT: To understand just how the governor managed to stop the cut, you need to understand a little about how the state is maximizing the amount of food stamps people like Stuart are getting. It turns out the federal government gives more in SNAP benefits to people if they also qualify for a state-administered program to help pay for heating their homes. But not every food stamp household pays a heating bill. For many, it's included in rent. What Connecticut's been doing is to give households like that the hefty sum of a dollar a year in heating assistance, just so they'll qualify for the boost in federal SNAP benefits.

And Connecticut isn't alone. At least 14 other so-called Heat and Eat states are doing the same thing. The farm bill sought to stop that practice by saying people can only get the extra SNAP money if they're getting at least $20 a year in heating assistance. So here's what Governor Malloy decided to do.

GOVERNOR DANNEL MALLOY: Our minimum benefit will now be $20.01. It is technically within the legislation, and it is in the spirit of the legislation.

LEMOULT: Malloy says that's because they're just trying to keep providing the help that people need, with less and less coming from the federal government. He says it's not cheating the system since they're meeting the requirements in the farm bill.

MALLOY: I mean, they gave us a road map, and I'm following it.

LEMOULT: This week, New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo followed that road map, too, and wound up in the same place. By boosting home heating assistance, Cuomo says he's preserving $457 million in federal SNAP benefits for nearly 300,000 households.

Of course, not everybody's thrilled that the cuts are being restored. Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. She says the whole SNAP program needs to be reformed, and at the very least, states like Connecticut and New York shouldn't be allowed to exploit the program.

RACHEL SHEFFIELD: This is basically, you know, a scheme that the states are using. It's a loophole, and it is permissible, technically by law, but it's something that, you know, states have found that they can use to pull down more federal dollars. You know, over the years, states have paid less and less into welfare programs. And so, you know, again, there's really no accountability on their part for how much is being spent on this program.

LEMOULT: Connecticut Governor Malloy says he's not exploiting anything.

MALLOY: I think we're taking the appropriate steps to make sure that our children are fed, that our families are intact, that we continue to see struggling families get the aid that they need, in spite of Republicans in the Congress.

LEMOULT: Malloy says he suspects a number of governors, mostly Democrats, will follow his example. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Connecticut.

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