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Food stamp use has grown in Kansas and across the nation

Funding for program part of Farm Bill battle in Congress

By Dave Ranney | August 27, 2012

Five years ago, 184,000 low-income Kansans were on SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

Today, the enrollment tops 310,700 people.

A program that in 2007 cost the federal government about $190.3 million in Kansas outlays is expected to cost more than $450 million this year.

Congress, in recent months, has said SNAP has become too expensive and warrants serious belt-tightening.

In July, the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate passed a five-year Farm Bill that would reduce SNAP spending by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. The agriculture committee in the Republican-led House earlier this month passed a larger reduction of $16.5 billion over 10 years. Current SNAP spending is about $73 billion a year.

Looking for cuts

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the House option would end assistance to between 2 million and 3 million people nationally. What portion of those might be Kansans has not been determined.

States have had some flexibility over the years to expand eligibility for SNAP, and Kansas has been among the few states where policymakers have not adopted what is called “expanded categorical eligibility.” The House plan would eliminate that categorical option for states.

It also would eliminate federal incentive payments to states that have improved their food aid programs. Kansas has received at least four of those performance bonuses since 2003, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The agriculture committee’s bill has yet to reach the House floor.

The Senate bill would find its savings by decoupling food stamp eligibility from a federal subsidy program (LIHEAP) that helps poor people with home heating costs. Currently, people who qualify for the energy subsidy also are automatically qualified for SNAP benefits because the income limits are nearly the same. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 62,000 Kansas households qualified for LIHEAP subsidies in fiscal 2011, but the number of people who also received the food aid or the ramifications of the Senate plan for Kansas haven’t been determined.<a name="continued"></a>

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"I'm going to be in a helluva mess if they cut them back. I don't know what I'd do without them," said Anna McKee of Topeka, of plans in Congress to cut spending on the food stamp program. McKee, an unemployed widow, said she struggles to pay her property taxes and utility bills and cannot afford telephone service. She said she gets about $200 worth of SNAP benefits a month. "If they want to cut back on something, why don't they cut back on that damn war over there," she said. "I don't see any good coming out of that."

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Angela de Rocha, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which administers SNAP in Kansas, said the agency has a “neutral” stance on the federal proposals to scale back the nutrition program.

Stalled for now

For now, both the House and Senate plans are stalled on the SNAP issue despite considerable pressure on Congress to pass a Farm Bill, which includes the food assistance authorization.

“Typically, what would happen is that the ag committee would send a bill to the House floor, the House would pass a bill and then ‘conference’ with whatever was in the Senate bill,” said Helen Dombalis, a policy associate with the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition. “That hasn’t happened because the speaker (U.S. John Boehner, R-Ohio) has kept the (House) bill off the floor. The speculation is that it doesn’t have enough votes to pass because the Tea Party-ers don’t think $16.5 billion is enough of a cut and the Democrats won’t vote for it because they think it’s too much.”

Deliberations, she said, were complicated by the fact that the current Farm Bill expires Sept. 30. Congress is now in the fourth week of a five-week recess and is scheduled to reconvene Sept. 10.

Last week, 39 national farm organizations launched “Farm Bill Now,” a campaign aimed at getting a Farm Bill passed on or before Sept. 30.

“We just want Congress to get in, talk about the differences between the House bill and the Senate bill, and get something done,” said Patrick Delaney, a spokesman for the Farm Bill Now Coalition.

When Congress returns, the agriculture committee may try to push its bill to the House floor, circumventing the speaker’s office.

“It would be out of order, but it could be done,” Dombalis said. “There’s also talk of their passing a three- or six-month extension or even a one-year extension.”

Kansas support for cuts

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican who represents Kansas’ 1st District, serves on the 46-member House Agriculture Committee. Earlier this month, he chided President Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for not doing enough to break the deadlock.

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The Rev. Roger D. Randel, Jr. heads the Family of God church in north Topeka, which has distributed donated groceries to hundreds of families each month for the past three years. "Used to be the cars that rolled through here were one step above junk yard material," he said. "But now we see a lot of people with nicer cars, middle-class people who lost their jobs." According to CBO, after the recession of 2007 enrollment in the SNAP program soared to included one in seven Americans.

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“Secretary Vilsack, the USDA and President Obama would rather play political games — amidst campaigning in Iowa for both the president and the secretary’s wife — than offer real policy proposals,” Huelskamp said in a statement posted on his website.

Vilsack, a Democrat, is a former Iowa governor. His wife, Christie Vilsack, is running against Iowa Congressman Steve King, a conservative Republican.

Huelskamp also criticized Obama for wanting to “enroll more Americans in food stamps,” noting that “more Americans are on food stamps under Barack Obama than any other president. He’s grown the rolls by over 14 million people. Given the failure of the Obama economy we can only expect this number to get worse.”

Huelskamp’s district covers the western two-thirds of Kansas and is the state’s most rural and agricultural.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is the ranking minority member on the 21-member Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

He has said the Senate-passed Farm Bill “strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs.”

Some conservative Republican lawmakers have said the program suffers from too much fraud and abuse. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, those problems have been marginal since food stamps were replaced in 2005 by electronic debit cards.

'Can't do it without SNAP'

Steve Lohr, executive director at the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program in Girard, said concerns that SNAP recipients abuse the program were off-target.

“I know people like to glom onto the fraud-and-abuse argument, but I have to say I’ve been here a long time and I don’t see it,” Lohr said. “What I see are parents working for minimum wage, trying to pay rent and utilities and still have enough to feed their kids. A lot of them can’t do it without SNAP.”

Cost of food stamp program has soared

Food stamp policy criticized

The community action program runs a shelter for homeless families in Pittsburg.

“It has room for about 60 people — parents and children,” Lohr said. “It’s always full. It’s just kids everywhere.”

The shelter residents, he said, are among those who rely on SNAP.

“But it’s not just them,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of the kids in this area are impoverished. So the issue isn’t really whether somebody is getting food stamps who shouldn’t be, it’s children and families that don’t have enough to eat. That’s the discussion we ought to be having.”

In Kansas, almost 45 percent of the state’s SNAP beneficiaries are children. Almost three-fourths of the state’s 145,000 SNAP households include one or more children.

Regulations prohibit SNAP benefits from being used to buy prepared “hot foods,” such as a slice of pizza; alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, paper products, cleaning supplies, toiletries or lottery tickets.

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