Originally published in The Washington Monthly on March 10th, 2014
Despite outrage over the recent cuts to the federal food stamp program, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these reductions in benefits are unlikely to materialize, at least to the degree most observers expected. And what’s more: we can safely assume that Republicans and Democrats knew this would be the case all along.
To recap, a month ago, the passage of the trillion dollar Farm Bill included an $8.7 billion cut to SNAP over ten years. These reductions would come from tinkering with a program, used in fifteen states and Washington DC, known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It was designed to help individuals who require federal fuel assistance to heat their homes become automatically eligible for SNAP benefits, too. Hence the program’s nickname: Heat and Eat.
Conservatives argued that too many people were abusing the program, and that LIHEAP’s minimum fuel assistance requirement of $1 was too low for individuals who seek to also qualify for SNAP benefits. So, under the pretense of fraud reduction, Republicans pushed for the minimum fuel assistance threshold to rise from $1 to $20. The CBO estimated that this bump would cause 850,000 households to effectively lose an average of $90 per month in food stamps.
Liberals were justifiably angered by the news, and Republicans touted the move as a victory for responsible fiscal choices. But here’s the thing: low-income households are unlikely to see that level of loss in their benefits, and fiscal hawks aren’t going to see any savings.
That’s because in January’s 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress stepped in, allocating LIHEAP an additional $169 million. Consequently, last week, the Governors of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania each announced that they would grant more of their new federal dollars to Heat and Eat so that their constituents will not lose any SNAP benefits.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Republicans and Democrats probably always knew this was going to happen. But since conveying those assumptions to their constituents might get in the way of their political spin, they kept quiet.
In New York, if Governor Cuomo shells out a mere $6 million in additional federal heating assistance, he will be able to maintain $457 million in yearly food stamp benefits. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy can allocate $1.4 million in additional federal fuel assistance funds, and maintain $66.6 million in annual food stamp benefits. And, in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett will only need to allocate $8 million of his additional federal LIHEAP funds in order to keep an estimated $300 million in annual SNAP benefits.
Even the math-haters out there can see that those are damn good deals.
It is no coincidence that the states receiving the bulk of additional LIHEAP funds are the same cold weather states that would be most affected by the Heat and Eat cuts. New York received an additional $50 million this year— a number that makes the $6 million Cuomo needs to maintain all SNAP benefits quite manageable indeed.
This was an unusually cold winter, which helped Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) increase appropriated funds to LIHEAP. It was the first increase in low income home energy spending since 2009, according to a Senate press release.
Although it’s not unfounded to worry that these additional funds might be ephemeral, given Federal Reserve reports asserting that this year’s cold weather thwarted economic growth, political support for keeping fuel assistance programs intact in the future seems feasible.
Ultimately, of course, this is all good news. Recipients of SNAP benefits will likely continue to receive their food stamps, and states will not even have to tap into their stretched budgets to pay for it.
What’s frustrating is how both Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, politicized this whole episode, making it downright difficult for even a discerning public to gauge how much they should worry. Republicans could feel confident that states would fill in the $19 fuel assistance gap in order to continue receiving SNAP benefits given that the incentives for such a deal are so overwhelmingly in favor of the states. If Republicans were serious about cutting food stamps, they would have gone another route. (Indeed a frustrated Wall Street Journaleditorial board lambasted Republicans as “rubes” who were suckers to “cheat and eat.”) Republicans could still claim though, however spuriously, that they heroically “cut food stamps.”
Democrats, alternatively, were able to tout their handy narrative that while Republicans were “gutting” food stamps they had tried their very best to preserve all the benefits they possibly could. (Of course, some rightly called Democrats out on their pitiful lack of resolve in the negotiations process.) But rather than come out and explain to folks that these cuts are avoidable, and that they will likely be avoided, Democrats not only condemned Republicans, but also praised themselves for responsibly “addressing fraud and abuse” in Heat and Eat.
(Don’t expect to see Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, condemn the Governors of the New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania for fraud, now.)