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Food Fight: House Resists Food Stamp Cuts in Child Nutrition Bill

Let’s start with the fact that the Child Nutrition Act needs reauthorization by the end of this week or it expires. Good news, the Senate has already passed a bill and is not the problem! Bad news, the Senate found $2.2 billion in offsets for the bill by dipping into the SNAP cookie jar and cutting increases to the food stamp program from the stimulus. Here’s a good explanation of what happened here:

The $10 billion Education Jobs Fund and $16.1 billion Medicaid reimbursement increase, which Congress passed in mid-August, was also made possible by offsets from the SNAP benefits increase in ARRA. Specifically, Congress created $11.9 billion in offsets by setting a 2014 end date for the ARRA SNAP benefits increase. While this offset was also unpopular with anti-hunger advocates, it was less controversial because the ARRA SNAP benefits increase was originally intended to end in 2014 anyway.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided funds to increase the value of SNAP benefits until annual inflation adjustments to SNAP reached ARRA levels – believed at the time to be in 2014. But low levels of food cost inflation in 2009 and 2010 slowed down that timeline, meaning that SNAP adjustments wouldn’t meet ARRA levels until 2018. Although the 2014 deadline for the ARRA funds meant that SNAP benefits would likely drop from 2014 to 2018, the perceived urgency of the Education Jobs Fund and Medicaid increase made the offset politically viable.

Politically “viable,” but not viable to anti-hunger advocates, who lay out the impact of cutting benefits. This is a picture of a week’s worth of food on food stamps, under the cut scenario:

This represents a real cut in benefits in 2013:

TWI: What is the real impact of this cut?

Berg: The change cuts future benefits and also restricts people from entering, or qualifying for, the program. This is the first time in the history of the program that recipients of the benefit will actually get less.

Some progressives are making a claim that this is not actually a cut, that this is somehow just a return to the baseline benefit. But that claim is really preposterous and offensive. The Center for Science in the Public interest, they’re progressive, but they have put that idea forward. If they had a cost of living increase and wage increases over five years, but then we returned them to the salary that they had five years ago, my guess is that they would see that as a cut, rather than a return to the baseline.

People in America have been socialized into expecting some sort of Frank Capra-esque happy ending all the time — somehow, magically, in the end, this will all work out. I’m sorry, but for low-income people, that is not what happens. This means people are going to suffer more. Low-income people are already in trouble due to the recession. They are suffering mightily to make sure that there is food on the table for their kids. And now, they’re going to have less of it.

As for the claim that we’ll fix it later, and we should pass the child-nutrition bill now: whether or not the House or Senate ends up changing parties at the midterm elections, we are going to have a more-conservative House and Senate. And it is also clear that the deficit is going to be bigger next year than it is this year. So people really expect that even though Congress can’t find the money now, they’re going to find it down the road — with a less-progressive Congress and a wider deficit? They’re magically going to be able to come up with funds for this later? They won’t.

So that’s the background for this fight in the House between the First Lady and House Democrats, who don’t want to dip into the SNAP cookie jar again:

Despite heavy lobbying by the first lady, more than 100 House Democrats have balked at approving the Senate’s $4.5 billion version of the nutrition bill because it is funded in part with $2.2 billion in cuts to SNAP, the federal food stamp program. They want assurances from the Obama administration that the funding cuts the Senate approved will be restored in the near future.

“The White House’s preference is to just pass the bill,” said a congressional staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity while the negotiations are ongoing. “So far, our folks … they’re not willing to do that.”

Essentially robbing a child’s dinner to pay for their lunch makes no sense whatsoever, especially at a time when child poverty is soaring, with rates over 20% last year. These kids need more help, not an increase here offset by a cut there.

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David Dayen

David Dayen