Monday, May 13, 2013

Food Stamp Use Declined In February--If USDA Posted Accurate Numbers

Draft legislation for House and  Senate Farm Bills slash funding for the nutrition safety net; Agriculture Committees will hold markups this week...
Both draft versions of the 2013 Farm Bill legislation released by the Senate and House Agriculture Committees cut funding for the Food Stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The Department of Agriculture released figures late on Friday afternoon showing that enrollment declined in February, the most recent month for which data is available.   The Senate and House will markup their legislation this week, and Food Stamps will be hotly debated.

USDA reports that 47,558,101 people received benefits in February, at a cost of $6,303,620,235.  That's  213,962 fewer people than received benefits in January, but still leaves one in five Americans receiving federal nutrition assistance.  The average monthly benefit per person was $132.55, while the average household benefit was $273.99. 

But the newly posted February numbers may not be accurate.  

Last month, USDA issued a whopping miscalculation when releasing the January numbers, showing a decline of more than half a million beneficiaries between January 2013 and December 2012.  Three days later, the agency, blaming a "technical glitch," corrected the figure, and released a new number showing that there was a reduction of just 19,948 beneficiaries between the two months.  

USDA also "revises" its numbers each time it issues a monthly update.  Last month the corrected beneficiaries figure USDA released for January was 47,772,108 people.  This month, the agency has changed that number to 47,772,063 beneficiaries.

The Farm Bill & SNAP...
No matter how many beneficiaries receive SNAP support, the nutrition safety net will be slashed in the next Farm Bill. Enrollment and spending has ballooned since President Obama took office in 2009, continuing a trend that started before he was elected.   

Taking out disaster assistance, Fiscal Year 2012 had the highest SNAP participation and spending in US history, according to the Monthly Treasury Statement that summarizes the receipts and outlays of the federal government.  The government spent $80,401,000,000 between Oct. 1, 2011 and Sept. 30, 2012.  That was a $2.7 billion increase from the $77,637,000,000 spent in FY 2011. 

The draft versions of the House and Senate legislation offer different approaches to cuts, with the House bill going deeper and calling for a reorganization of the program at the state level.  The Senate will hold a markup on Tuesday morning, with the House markup following on Wednesday morning.

The Senate draft legislation eliminates SNAP eligibility for lottery or gambling winners and tightens up eligibility under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Act of 1981.   It cuts funding by $400 million annually over ten years.

The House draft legislation cuts SNAP by roughly $2 billion annually, for a total of $20.5 billion over ten years.  That is 2.5% of the program off a base of more than $700 billion over 10 years.  $11.5 billion of the savings would come from eliminating "broad-based categorical eligibility" at the state level, which allows individuals to automatically receive Food Stamps when enrolled in other government programs.  $8.69 billion of the savings would come from requiring states to make at least $20 in payments for energy assistance in order for citizens to be eligible for nutrition assistance, according to Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK). 

Junk food will remain on "allowable purchases" list...
One item neither the House nor the Senate legislation addresses is the inclusion of junk food purchased with SNAP benefits.  Recipients are allowed to purchase soda, cake, cookies, candy, chips and a wide range of other obesogenic foods under the program, in contrast to the federal WIC program, which limits allowable foods to a far shorter list of "healthier" foods.  

A USDA study released in April found that those who receive Food Stamps have a diet that is  "a little less healthy" than those who do not receive federal assistance, and the benefits have "little impact on healthier food choices."  When the Food Stamp program was first created, it limited allowable food purchases.

Lawmakers were unable to come to an agreement on new legislation when the 2008 Farm Bill expired last year, and ultimately extended the 2008 Farm Bill until next September.  SNAP is just one part of the bill that will be the subject of contentious debate in the weeks ahead.  

Senate downloads:  

*Agriculture Reform, Food And Jobs Act 2013, (Chairwoman's Mark) [PDF]

*Detailed Summary [PDF]

>The House Agriculture Committee will markup its draft of the 2013 Farm Bill on Wednesday morning, May 15, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn) announced. The Committee has released the official committee print of the legislation, as well as a detailed summary.

House downloads:  

*Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013, Chairman's Mark [PDF]

*Detailed Summary [PDF]