'Heat and eat' loophole was a lifeline

When the Farm Bill was signed into law last month many Democrats hailed it as a victory for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The program, they said, was cut by “only” $8.6 billion after House Republicans had pushed for deeper cuts of $40 billion.  Yet 850,000 families were expected to lose $90 per month in nutrition assistance—hardly insignificant when an individual’s average benefit is just $4.20 per day.

But something is happening that Congress didn’t anticipate—states are refusing to implement the ill-conceived cuts.  The response from state welfare agencies and both Republican and Democratic governors—and what was left out of the Congressional SNAP debate—should be instructive to the Democratic caucus as the debate about anti-poverty programs continues.

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To recap, the proposed cuts were attempted through what many in Congress and the media wrongly described as “closing a loophole.”  In fact, it was changing a “heat and eat” provision in the SNAP program that was informed by science.  The provision was created because pediatricians and other researchers found that at the end of every month too many families on food stamps were forced to choose between paying their rent and utilities or feeding their families, with children often suffering upper respiratory infections and greater risk of hospitalization as a result.  It became known as “heat or eat” syndrome.  The “heat and eat” provision allowed families receiving $1 in state energy assistance to get a boost in their food stamp allotment to help them make it through the month.

Instead of jumping on the “loophole” bandwagon and attempting to shut this needed assistance down, Democrats as a caucus should have been straight with the American people about why so many families were faced with the heat or eat dilemma at the end of every month?  Why are SNAP benefit levels resulting in states seeking more assistance for their residents?

Part of the answer lies in how the SNAP program calculates (and understates) a family’s monthly net income that, in turn, determines benefit levels. 

Americans need to know know that families are only allowed to count $478 in rent and utility expenses—no matter where they live; and that families with children who have special needs aren’t allowed to deduct their out-of-pocket health care expenses.  They should know that the benefit level is calculated with the assumption that recipients—many of whom are parents working two or even three jobs—will have sufficient time to cook cheaper, unprocessed ingredients from scratch; and that they will be able to cost compare at supermarkets offering a variety of healthy foods at lower costs, even in urban and rural areas where we know these options aren’t available.   

Democrats could have pointed to a 2013 report by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine which lays out these and other factors and suggests that SNAP benefits are too low—due to the assumptions of the program and the way that monthly net income is calculated.

This is hardly breaking news. 

In 1933, the US Department of Agriculture said that the Thrifty Food Plan—which is what we currently use to determine a nutritious diet at minimal cost—is for “restricted diets for emergency use,” and that “a reasonable measure of basic needs for a good diet… should be as high as the cost of the low-cost food plan.”  That’s a plan that would result in more generous food stamp benefit levels for all participating families.

As Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) continues to draw media attention to poverty in his latest attempt to dismantle the safety net, Democrats need to seize the opportunity to tell the full story when it comes to SNAP and other antipoverty programs. 

They can begin by telling the truth about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program which serves as a model for many of Ryan’s proposals.  In “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” the congressman asserts, “The creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is widely seen as the most successful reform of a welfare program.”

TANF is plainly and simply a failure.

Prior to the creation of TANF in 1996, for every 100 families living in poverty—below about $19,790 for a family of three in today’s dollars—68 received cash assistance.  Now that number is down to just 25

There are now more than 20 million people living in deep poverty— below half of the poverty line—including more than 15 million women and children.  That’s an increase of more than 60 percent since 2000 and a lack of cash assistance is a contributing factor.

The TANF block grant has lost nearly 30 percent of its value since 1996 because it was never indexed to inflation.   In no state are benefits greater than 50 percent of the poverty line, and in most they are below 30 percent of the poverty line. 

Is this really a model for “successful reform”?  One that leads to fewer people in need receiving assistance, greater deprivation, and diminishing resources at the state level?

As Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman told me, “We have blown a huge hole in the safety net for the most desperate people in our country and almost nobody knows that except for low-income people themselves.”

If Democrats tell the truth and the whole story about antipoverty programs in America, they will be doing a public service and the public will support them for it.  They might also do something Ryan has failed to do in two hearings on the War on Poverty—present witnesses who actually live in poverty and know firsthand how the programs either work or come up short.

Kaufmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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