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Looming food-stamp cuts split Democrats, anger anti-hunger groups

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Wednesday, June 5, 2013, at 5:18 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, at 6:16 p.m.

— Billions of dollars in funding cuts for food stamps, contained in bills moving through Congress, have split Democratic lawmakers and angered advocates for the poor, who criticize the cuts as heartless attempts to reduce the federal budget deficit.

The anti-hunger lobbyists are especially disappointed by Democrats who in recent weeks have voted for the cuts in legislation that passed the House of Representatives and Senate agriculture committees last month, measures that also contain controversial aid to farmers.

“Food stamps have been protected for decades,” said Ellen Teller, the head of governmental affairs for Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group. “This is the first time they’re being cut for deficit reduction. We think it’s wrong to pay down the deficit on the backs of the poor.”

Teller and others who work to protect low-income Americans are dismayed because food stamps were among the safety net programs that Congress exempted from the forced across-the-board cuts now in effect under the system known as sequestration.

Food stamps and aid to farmers have been paired in single measures for years in order to draw the support of lawmakers from agricultural states and those who represent large numbers of poor people, many of whom are clustered in urban areas.

But with rising federal debt and increased demands for reducing budget deficits, both programs have come under attack from fiscal hawks in Congress who campaigned on promises to slash government spending.

The Senate has been considering dozens of amendments to the measure this week that would reduce food stamp funds by $4 billion over a decade with specific cuts aimed to certain recipient categories. Such cuts would reduce benefits for about 840,000 of the 47 million recipients. A Senate vote on that bill might come as early as Thursday.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who crafted the farm bill that’s now on the Senate floor, defended the measure.

Stabenow said its food stamp cuts were less severe than those in the House bill and that her legislation significantly restructured agricultural aid by changing direct payments to farmers into federal support for insurance premiums, so that farmers would get aid only when they suffered financial losses.

The House is expected to take up its legislation later this month with food stamp cuts of $21 billion, about 3 percent of the program, that would reduce or eliminate benefits for 2 million people by imposing tougher eligibility requirements and reducing benefits.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has argued for the cuts, noting during a House Agriculture Committee meeting in May that the number of food stamp recipients has grown substantially during his decade in Congress and accusing the Obama administration of trying to “expand the dependency class.”

Twenty-three Republicans and 13 Democrats on the committee voted for the farm bill with the food stamp cuts. Two Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the legislation.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, is mobilizing opposition to the spending reductions. She’s lined up 20 lawmakers to rally next week at a Safeway grocery store in Washington and pledge to limit their food purchases for a week to $31.50, the average food stamp payment.

“The cuts to our nation’s social safety net are unconscionable,” Lee said. “Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the formal name for food stamps) provide a vital lifeline and help put food on the table for millions of people across the country. The (House) farm bill, as it stands, doesn’t deserve support from anyone.”

Two-thirds of the 201 House Democrats have signed a measure calling for the food stamp funds to be restored.

Sue Berkowitz, the head of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia, S.C., said cutting food stamps would further harm people whom the weak economy had been hurting for years.

“It’s just heartbreaking that a majority of our representatives in Washington does not recognize how important a program it is for people here,” she said. “And the cuts will have a ripple effect, because it’s money that goes into our economy when people buy food.”

Stabenow’s aides say the Senate measure includes focused cuts. It would target lottery winners who take lump-sum payments but continue to get food stamps by reporting low income, and it cracks down on black marketers who illegally buy and sell food stamps at a profit.

The bill also would reduce food stamp benefits for specific people – primarily in California, Washington state, Pennsylvania and 13 other states – whose housing rental payments cover utilities but who still are able to claim energy expenses among their monthly costs when applying for food stamps.

“Sen. Stabenow led the fight against Republicans’ draconian cuts to struggling families and will continue to oppose (House) plans that cut standard benefits for needy families trying to feed their children,” Cullen Schwarz, a Stabenow spokesman, told McClatchy on Wednesday. “The Senate farm bill eliminates fraud and misuse without cutting standard benefits or removing a single needy family from the food assistance program.”

The Senate farm bill would cut direct subsidies by $21 billion, expand crop insurance by $5 billion and reduce food stamp payments by $4 billion, for a net deficit reduction of $20 billion.

Ten Democrats and five Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee voted for the legislation, while one Democrat – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – and four Republicans voted against it. Three of 10 Democrats who backed the measure – Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, William Cowan of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont – later voted for Gillibrand’s failed amendment to restore the $4 billion in food stamp cuts.

“The bill is a compromise under the legislative process,” Leahy spokesman David Carle said. “This issue was addressed as much as it could be in committee, and the next opportunity was on the (Senate) floor.”

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