DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's continue our conversation about a farm bill that Democrats and Republicans are trying to negotiate today in Washington. The differences over the bill are huge. The House wants to cut food stamps, or SNAP benefits, by $40 billion over 10 years. The Senate wants to cut 4 billion. Pam Fessler from NPR's Planet Money team explains that the cuts involve complicated legal maneuvers - some call them loopholes.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: To hear Republican Andy Harris of Maryland on the House floor this year, $40 billion in cuts wouldn't be all that bad.

REPRESENTATIVE ANDY HARRIS: This is a common sense reform that cuts waste, fraud and abuse, leaving more money for the Americans who truly need help in time of need.

FESSLER: Well, not exactly. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says almost two million low-income people would lose their benefits under the House bill. And waste, fraud and abuse? The cuts really deal with something much more arcane. Here's Republican Rick Crawford of Arkansas.

REPRESENTATIVE RICK CRAWFORD: This legislation will no longer allow states to exploit various loopholes, such as artificially making people eligible simply by mailing a TANF brochure, or substantially increasing benefits by sending a nominal LIHEAP check.

FESSLER: OK, that's a mouthful. But let me try to explain. First, yes, you can - as Crawford says - become eligible for food stamps if you receive a brochure from the welfare office. As outrageous as that might sound.

JESSICA SHAHIN: It does sound a little outrageous. I won't disagree with you on that, but I think what you have to do is think about what it really means.

FESSLER: Jessica Shahin oversees food stamps at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She says you still have to be relatively low income to get the brochure. That it's really an administrative shortcut. The law allows someone who's eligible for benefits for one means-tested program — like TANF or welfare - to automatically become eligible for another, like SNAP. That way you don't have to apply twice.

SHAHIN: It simplifies the process for states.

FESSLER: But, she says, there's a caveat. An individual's income still has to be very low - below the poverty line - to qualify for food stamps benefits.

SHAHIN: If the person has an income that makes them ineligible for a benefit, you can be eligible all day long; you're not getting a benefit.

FESSLER: In other words, if you get that brochure, you're really just eligible to be considered for benefits. Still, Republicans complain that the maneuver has allowed states to waive a $2,000 asset limit for food stamps recipients. So you can have, say, $20,000 in the bank and still get the aid. But states say that's rare and it costs a lot to figure out what people do or don't own. Deborah Carroll administers food stamps for 130,000 residents in the District of Columbia.

DEBORAH CARROLL: If we had to do that for everyone, it would cost us 2, 3, $4 million dollars more to administer that program for a fraction of the population that may have assets out there that we don't necessarily know about.

FESSLER: So the debate really comes down to a difference in philosophy between those trying to get benefits to the needy as quickly as possible, and those trying to reign in government spending. And that brings us back to Congressman Crawford's other complaint. Here it is again.

CRAWFORD: Substantially increasing benefits by sending a nominal LIHEAP check.

FESSLER: LIHEAP. That's a program that helps low-income people pay their energy bills. Those in the program can automatically qualify for higher SNAP benefits. So states have figured out if they give people just $1 in LIHEAP aid, they can get more food stamps - paid for with federal dollars. Both the House and Senate want to clamp down on that one.

DEBORAH CARROLL: Yeah, well it may be a loophole, but I think one that benefits families.

FESSLER: Again, D.C. administrator Carroll. The way she see it, this is one way to offset other cuts in the food stamp program at a time of need, that one person's loophole is another's workaround. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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