RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Congress passed a farm bill last month, it expected to save $8.6 billion over 10 years by tightening what many say is a loophole in the food stamp, or SNAP, program. But that's not what's happening.
Congress left states an opening to avoid the cuts, and it turns out that's exactly what they're doing, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: This involves a quirk in federal law known as Heat and Eat. It allows those who get home heating aid to receive additional food stamps. And states figured out they could give people just $1 a year in heating aid to trigger the provision. They said it cut red tape and helped those in need. But the maneuver was criticized, by both Republicans and Democrats, like Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow.
SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: Sending out $1 checks out to everyone isn't the intent of Congress. It is undermining the integrity of the program in my judgment.
FESSLER: So, last month, Congress agreed to increase to $20 the amount of utility aid states would have to pay to trigger Heat and Eat - with the expectation that most of the 17 states now taking advantage of it would decide it was no longer worth their while. Congress predicted that 850,000 food stamp recipients would have benefits cut an average $90 a month. But - turns out - Congress was wrong.
KAIT GILLIS: Governor Corbett took the appropriate steps to make sure that Pennsylvania's children are fed and that families in need are not impacted by what is one of the most substantial federal cuts to food benefits.
FESSLER: That's Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare. The state's Republican governor, Tom Corbett, last week said he would spend the extra $8 million in heating aid this year required to protect $300 million in food stamps for state residents. Since it's all federal money, Gillis says it's kind of a win-win for the state.
GILLIS: That $300 million that the individuals receive through SNAP assistance is then spent in Pennsylvania.
FESSLER: Other states have come to the same conclusion - erasing most of the savings that Congress hoped to achieve. In recent days, the governors of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon and Montana have all announced that they too will avoid the food stamp cuts.
Washington, D.C. is planning to do the same. And the head of Vermont's Department of Children and Families, Dave Yacovone, told Vermont Public Radio he hopes to preserve $6 million in food stamps, in part because Congress also trimmed benefits last year.
DAVE YACOVONE: This is real important because, if we don't make this change, that's on top of an actual $10 million reduction.
FESSLER: The response from Congress? House Speaker John Boehner made clear to reporters yesterday that he for one is not happy.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: States have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps. And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.
FESSLER: But whether Congress will act isn't clear. It took years for the House and Senate to agree on even these cuts. Republicans want much larger reductions in the food stamp program.
Needless to say, anti-hunger advocates are thrilled by what's going on. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, says the debate over whether states are exploiting a loophole misses the bigger issue.
JIM WEILL: Food stamps are not enough to get the vast majority of recipients through the month. The farm bill should have had a debate about how to improve benefits, not how to cut benefits.
FESSLER: Now he hopes additional states will use Heat and Eat to boost food stamp benefits even more.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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