Hoosiers who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, should pay attention to more than just the fluctuating prices at the grocery stores. They should also watch what’s happening on Capitol Hill in Washington because the future of the current food stamps program is up for debate in Congress.
Historically, the food stamp program has been part of a large, important piece of legislation called the “Farm Bill.” Another component of that bill are the country’s agriculture programs; insurance such as disaster insurance; and commodities like peanuts, corn, soybeans and sugar.
“The two have been brought together in order to get the programs passed. The farm programs have traditionally drawn support from the rural communities, and the food stamp program has brought the urban representatives,” said Lee Hamilton, director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University.
This year, passing the farm bill has been difficult. The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that includes traditional components of current programs. The House has stalled due to changes.
According to Chris Hurt, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, the U.S. House of Representatives’ bill was allowed to be altered prior to a vote. Several changes were questionable.
For example, one amendment gave states the right to require drug tests before one could receive food stamps. Hurt said these “deal killers” were allowed to be put into the bill just before voting. Thus, the total bill that included the farmer portion and the nutrition portion failed in the House.
Because of this, the bill was split. Agricultural components of the bill passed. House members are still working on the food stamp portion of the bill, most notably the level of support they are willing to give citizens.
Division is generally among party lines. House Republicans would like to sharply reduce SNAP, while Democrats disagree and fear too many people will no longer be eligible.
“This bill failed because it would irresponsibly cut $20 billion from the SNAP program, shutting down food aid for nearly 2 million Americans and removing over 210,000 children from free school lunch and breakfast. We cannot afford to push our most vulnerable citizens aside,” said Congressman André Carson, D-Ind, who is a member of the U.S. House and represents the 7th District, a large portion of Indianapolis.
Hamilton, who served many years in the U.S. House, said he believes House Republicans feel there is a lot of waste in the program. There’s also been an explosion in the number of program recipients. One in 6 Americans depend on food stamps. In 1964, the nutrition component was a small part of the farm bill. Today, the country’s SNAP program traditionally has made up 80 percent of spending in the bill.
David Miner, chair of the Indy Hunger Network, said, “I understand they want to balance the budget, but its misguided. The program is designed to serve those in desperate circumstances. The reason costs are up is because more people are in desperate circumstances. Balancing the budget shouldn’t be on the backs of struggling people.”
Party division on the level of funding cuts is also among Indiana’s two senators.
Sen. Dan Coats – who voted for the farm bill when it passed the Senate last month – said he approves of House Republicans’ decisions.
“I think it’s created problems to the point where we ought to identify both of these as essential programs that have to be addressed,” Coats said.
Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly wants the bill to remain traditional.
“In the House’s version, we have no plan to be able to provide a single lunch to a needy child and I don’t see how that passes,” Donnelly said. He is also concerned that House Republicans don’t seem to have a “Plan B” – food stamp funding, even in separate legislation.
People should note that in addition to House Republicans, the Senate supported cuts as well, only smaller.
“It’s shortsighted to reduce the SNAP program, certainly at a time when there are so many people in need of those services,” said Laura Henderson, executive director of Growing Places Indy where SNAP is accepted at their farmers markets. “I think it’s a belief we have about who is receiving the benefits or that people are being lazy and the government has to cover the cost. It’s just not true. We really need to invest more in these programs. We underestimate the importance of being well fed.”
Carson encourages his fellow representatives to construct a more responsible alternative. Hamilton believes this issue can be resolved a number of ways but is unclear which path will be taken.
He went on to say that despite Congress’ slow progress and bickering over the past few years, this bill has never been easy due to its increasing complexity with businesses and special interest groups’ involvement in politics.
Congress is currently in recess and will return Sept. 9. They will then only have a matter of days to solidify the budget and get it to President Barack Obama to sign. The current law expires on Sept. 30.
“The House is only scheduled to be in session nine working days in September. This is almost no time to work on the farm bill, especially given other legislation like the debt ceiling, the 2014 Federal Government budget and immigration,” said Hurt.
If the bill expires, the Food Stamp program will continue under the old law until Congress makes a decision.
Miner, who is an expert at hunger statistics, said he hopes the SNAP program remains ample and fair. If Congress does manage to make cuts, he said the new bill will literally take food out of people’s mouths, mostly children.
“There’s a widespread lack of awareness in the prevalence of the problem. And the fact that there are substantial numbers in every congressional district,” said Miner. “Stereotypes blind people to reality. The average time people are on SNAP are nine months nationally and we think it’s less in Indiana. It’s not generous either – you can’t get through a month on SNAP benefits. You can’t even qualify unless you have almost nothing. That whole story is oftentimes not known to our representatives.”
Hamilton knows businesses and special interest groups can be intimidating, but encourages Hoosiers to make their voices heard.
For more information, contact your local U.S. representative.