House To Vote On Slashing $40 Billion From Food Stamps

The House today is voting on a plan pushed its Tea Party wing to slash $40 billion from food stamps. That's twice as much as the original House farm bill contemplated, and eight times as much as the Senate bill.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. The House of Representatives has narrowly passed a bill that would cut $40 billion over the next decade from the federal food stamp program. The official name of the program is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and that's where we're going to begin this hour, with a closer look at SNAP, how it works, whom it serves and what a cut of that size would mean.

First, the politics of food stamps and NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith.

Tamara, food stamps have been part of the Farm Bill for four decades and account for roughly three-quarters of the Farm Bill's price tag, but the bill that the House approved today, very narrowly, was a standalone bill. What happened?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In June, the House voted on a bill that contained both farm programs and food stamps and that one would've cut $20 billion from the food stamp program over a decade. But it failed pretty spectacularly because Democrats said it cut too much and conservative Republicans said it cut too little. So, at the urging of outside groups, they separated these things out, passed a farm-only Farm Bill.

And then the bill that they took up today, that just had the food stamp portion and it doubled the cut. And it was designed to pass basically with Republican votes alone and that's exactly what happened. No Democrats supported it.

SIEGEL: Forty billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. What would that actually mean in the way of a cut?

KEITH: In dollar value, that works out to about a cut of 5 percent. And the Congressional Budget Office estimates that in 2014, 3.8 million people would lose benefits as the result of the cuts, another 850,000 would see their benefits reduced. This led Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern on the House floor to say that this is the most heartless piece of legislation he's ever seen.

REP. JIM MCGOVERN: These are some of America's poorest adults, as well as many low-income children, seniors and families that work for low wages. Let me say that again, Mr. Speaker, so there's no confusion. People who work, but who don't make enough to feed their families will be cut from this program.

KEITH: It's also worth noting that this comes on top of a pretty significant reduction that's expected to hit in November. It was part of the stimulus act that food stamp recipients actually got a little bit more money for the last few years. Now that's going away and there's zero chance, basically, that it would get extended.

SIEGEL: Well, under the bill that the house passed, who or what would be targeted for these cuts?

KEITH: There are a number of cuts built into this bill. The Republicans who support it say it's aimed at waste, fraud and abuse - though it does go beyond that. It adds new barriers to signing up for the program and it also targets able-bodied adults without dependents. It's sort of an extension of the welfare reform law. Under that law, these people were only allowed to get three months of food stamps if they were unemployed.

The idea was to push people into work. Texas Republican Pete Sessions, speaking on the House floor, said that those waivers would go away in many cases, in part to push people to better their lives.

REP. PETE SESSIONS: There are still jobs available in America. There are still jobs available and they might ought not be the job that you'd want to stay in for the rest of your life, but it means that you need to go and actively participate...

KEITH: Advocates argue that these people are already desperately poor and hungry and you can't really live on food stamps alone. And the unemployment picture is still really grim.

SIEGEL: So, the House has passed a food-stamps-only bill and a farm bill without food stamps. What happens next to the Farm Bill?

KEITH: It goes to a conference committee. That's the most likely outcome, to hammer out the differences between the Senate and the House. And there are big differences. The Senate envisions a $4 billion cut to food stamps. The House is talking about 40 billion. It will likely be a much lower number than that in the end and then the question is whether House Republicans will be able to support it.

SIEGEL: That's NPR congressional correspondent, Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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