RANDOLPH CENTER — Competing farm bills in Congress could reduce food assistance for some low-income Vermonters and knock others off the program altogether, hunger advocates were told Thursday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office and Vermont’s Department for Children and Families briefed nearly 100 food-security advocates at Vermont Technical College on what the 2013 Farm Bill will mean for Vermont’s food assistance program.
Vermont receives about $12 million a month from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as food stamps. 3Squares VT is the state program charged with disbursing these funds, which benefit roughly 101,000 Vermonters on a monthly basis.
The federal legislation is still in flux — the House and Senate Agriculture committees have passed different bills, and a lot hinges on how the two versions are reconciled. Both, however, contain cuts to SNAP.
The Senate bill cuts $4.1 billion nationwide over the next decade. The House version is more draconian — it cuts roughly five times that amount. Floor debate on the bill began in the Senate last week; both chambers will continue to debate the legislation during the month of June. If Congress fails to pass a new Farm Bill, the SNAP program will stay intact.
The speeches at the annual 3SquaresVT Outreach Conference on Thursday were part policy briefings, and part call-to-arms. Among the audience members were staff from veterans’ organizations, shelters, senior centers, community action groups, schools, farmers markets and government departments.
Dorigen Keeney, program director for Hunger Free Vermont, urged the advocates to push Vermont’s congressional delegation to preserve funding for 3SquaresVT.
“SNAP is being used as the punching bag to score political points in Washington.”
Dorigen Keeney, Hunger Free Vermont
“SNAP is being used as the punching bag to score political points in Washington,” Keeney said. “Last year, Sen. Leahy used your stories when he defended cuts to SNAP on the Senate floor. … He needs more of your stories now.”
On top of the potential cuts embedded in the Farm Bill, states will see an across-the-board reduction in SNAP dollars Nov. 1, when American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for the program is terminated. As a result, Patricia Duda, the food and nutrition director for DCF, estimates a family of three in Vermont will see their monthly grant drop by $30 to $40.
The federal sequester does not impact SNAP.
Leahy supports the Senate Farm Bill. He released a statement earlier this month saying, “I am disappointed that this mark once again includes $4 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, which will predominately come from Northeastern states. I understand these cuts represent a compromise on behalf of the chairwoman, and they are certainly far more reasonable than the draft House mark, which includes $20 billion in food assistance reductions.”
Chris Saunders, a staff member from Leahy’s office, gave a scathing assessment of the House version at the gathering of food advocates. “We believe they are trying to balance the budget on the backs of low-income folks.”
DCF officials aren’t pleased about the cuts in either bill, but they agree the Senate version is “not as toxic.”
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that almost 2 million people will lose their benefits if the House version is passed. DCF officials say they aren’t sure yet how many Vermont households are at stake, but the deputy commissioner of DCF, Richard Giddings, said the impact would be “huge.”
The House bill eliminates “categorical eligibility,” a policy some states, including Vermont, have adopted to allow families to qualify for food assistance even if their gross income falls above the normal cutoff. In Vermont, for instance, people can qualify for food stamps if they receive Reach Up or the Earned Income Tax Credit. This has allowed the state to distribute SNAP money to families with incomes at 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) instead of using the federal standard, which is 130 percent of the FPL.
Duda, who describes categorical eligibility as “one of the greatest things that’s happened” in the program for reducing food insecurity, predicted, “a lot of people that are eligible now simply won’t be because their resources are going to be subject our review.”
The number of people receiving food assistance has skyrocketed at both the state and national level in recent years. In 2008, there were only about 55,000 people on 3Squares. That increase was driven by the economic downturn and the state’s decision to loosen eligibility standards.
Both the Senate and the House bills restrict what’s known as the “Heat and Eat” provision. If a family on 3Squares also gets fuel assistance, it automatically qualifies for a utility allowance, which increases the amount of food assistance they qualify for. Vermont is one of a host of states that doles out miniscule fuels benefits — think $3 a month — so families can get this allowance. The Senate bill would make the minimum fuel benefit $10; the House raises it to $20.
That will force states to choose between increasing the fuel benefit for these families and watching other benefits for these families drop.
Saunders said Leahy is confident the state can offset the benefit cuts that accompany the Senate bill.
“We believe that the state will step up, and if the threshold has to be put it in place, it will meet that threshold,” Saunders said.
Giddings said the governor’s office has asked his department to calculate how much it would cost for the state to pay those additional LIHEAP dollars. DCF doesn’t have firm figures yet, but Giddings gave an off-the-cuff approximation. Increasing the LIHEAP benefit to $10 for the 28,000 families that receive a smaller benefit would cost the state between $300,000 and $400,000. But, Giddings pointed out, it would allow Vermont to hold onto the $5 million to $6 million in federal funds that brings.
“Our department is committed to maintaining what we have and trying to figure out what would the governor potentially need to add back. But we don’t know yet where they are going to end up,” Giddings said.