REFRESH Act: Meeting needs of hungry while cutting costs

The food and nutrition programs administered by our Senate and House Agriculture Committees provide needed assistance to hungry people in Indiana and across America. In December, there were 46.5 million people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), which is an increase of 5.5 percent in the period of a year. For those with legitimate needs, food and nutrition programs, like SNAP, can provide welcome, provisional relief.

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On the other hand, in its January 2012 baseline projections, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that food and nutrition spending (most notably SNAP and child nutrition programs) will cost the federal government $102 billion in 2013. That represents an increase of $4 billion over this year and accounts for an astounding 84 percent of the total food and agriculture budget.

Balancing these two challenges – a need for assistance and the overwhelming expense of programs – will be a priority for our respective Committees as we draft a new farm bill. We believe that we can achieve real budget savings without turning away Hoosiers and other Americans with legitimate needs. 

That is one reason why we introduced our Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger (REFRESH) Act, which creates real reforms to U.S. farm and food support programs. These reforms create a true producer safety net that will serve more farmers more fairly, while being responsive to regional and national crises that might endanger the continuing success of America’s farmers. The reforms also improve accuracy and efficiency in federal nutrition programs, while protecting Americans in real hardship. The REFRESH Act accomplishes all of this while saving $40 billion in taxpayer dollars over the next ten years.

The nutrition title of the REFRESH Act is expected to save taxpayers nearly $14 billion over the next 10 years, accounting for roughly one-third of the REFRESH Act savings, but less than a 2 percent reduction in overall nutrition program spending. By focusing on closing eligibility loopholes, eliminating overlap in programs, and improving the efficiency of SNAP, we can make a reasonable and important step toward cutting costs.

Specifically, the REFRESH Act would eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP benefits. Under existing legislation, participants can be automatically or “categorically” eligible for SNAP benefits, if they are eligible for some other low-income assistance programs. Under our bill, this automatic eligibility for SNAP would be limited and available only to those receiving cash benefits from another qualifying program. After all, categorical eligibility is a far cry from responsible assistance. Our bill would ensure that those individuals eligible for SNAP benefits continue to receive their benefits, while eliminating loopholes that allow in participants who would otherwise not be eligible to receive SNAP benefits.

The REFRESH Act also eliminates duplicative federal government programs. The bill would eliminate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service employment and training program, which reimburses states for certain training programs. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are currently 47 federal government programs that provide employment and training. REFRESH’s common sense provisions help to reduce some of that government overlap and duplication.

Additional savings can be realized through improved enforcement of federal food and nutrition programs. The REFRESH Act would improve the quality control and enforcement for SNAP.  In addition, the bill eliminates the funding for “bonus” payments made to the states that demonstrate “high or most improved performance” in implementing the SNAP.  States do not need federally-funded awards for doing what they should be doing anyway – implementing food and nutrition programs accurately and efficiently.

As the Senate and House take up our new farm bill and its food and nutrition programs, we must carefully balance the needs of hungry Americans with the imperative to cut federal spending.  Our REFRESH Act offers a real solution to this challenge – one that achieves actual budget savings while not destroying the underlying programs.

Sen. Lugar and Rep. Stutzman are Indiana Republicans, family farm owners, and members of their respective Senate and House Agriculture Committees.  This is the third of a four-part series celebrating National Agriculture Day on March 8, 2012.