Congress Wrangles Over Size of Food Program
By Emily Schettler and Jens Manuel Krogstad on October 21, 2012
© Des Moines Register
Proposed cuts to a controversial farm bill sitting in limbo in Washington, D.C., have put government food assistance at risk for thousands of Iowa children.
House Republicans have proposed cutting $16 billion from nutrition programs over the next 10 years as part of efforts to reduce overall government spending. The Senate bill would cut $4 billion.
The cuts could eliminate benefits for 34,000 Iowans, including 15,000 children, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate. Nationally, 1.8 million Americans could see their food benefits cut.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Cumming, believes deep cuts would be immoral.
“We have a moral obligation as a country to make sure we don’t have hungry people, to make sure our kids are well-fed no matter what their economic situation,” he said during a recent visit to the Des Moines Area Religious Council, which helps stock local food pantries.
U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Ia., said providing food to those in need should remain a top priority. But he wants to re-examine eligibility requirements that were expanded four years ago.
The proposed $16 billion cut is a small fraction of the estimated $800 billion that will be spent over the next decade on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, Latham said.
However, cutting food stamp benefits would mean more hungry children, experts say. The most direct way to reduce child hunger is through national nutrition programs, said David Beckmann, head of Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.
More than 46 million people nationwide receive food stamps, and the number of Iowa recipients is growing. Last year, an average of 402,510 Iowans, including 193,200 children, received benefits. Iowa families, many of whom work but still need help each month to buy food, got an average benefit of $262 per month.
“It’s a nutrition issue, farm income issue and a jobs issue,” said Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, who added that the food program helps stabilize commodity prices for farmers. “If more food has to be sold, processed, trucked, that creates jobs in the supply chain.”
Iowa children who could lose food assistance live in households that earn more than the federal minimum income level but still struggle to put food on the table, said Charles Bruner, executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center, a Des Moines research and advocacy group.
Under basic federal rules, residents must make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is determined by family size and household income. For a family of four, the cutoff is $35,113.
Iowa is one of 27 states that expanded eligibility. Since 2008, Iowa residents who make up to 165 percent of the poverty level, or $38,033 for a family of four, can get assistance.
That approach allows families to gradually lessen their dependence on food assistance as they become more self-sufficient, Bruner said.
If states are forced to tighten eligibility rules, families could go from receiving full benefits to nothing when they earn even $1 above the 130 percent level — called the “cliff effect.” This can discourage parents from seeking raises or higher-paid positions because of the potential loss in benefits, Bruner said.