President Obama has already threatened to veto the farm bill being debated this week in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives over its $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an amount five times greater than what the Senate agreed to last week and enough to disqualify nearly 2 million people who rely on food stamps for their next meal.
Even worse than the cuts themselves is how the House would achieve them. Current law allows states to align their rules for SNAP eligibility with the rules they apply for welfare beneficiaries, giving lawmakers some flexibility over how they disburse food stamps. Without that flexibility, states would be required to enforce federal eligibility rules that haven't been changed in decades, including an asset test that would disqualify anyone with over $2,000 in savings—a limit set in 1986 and never adjusted for inflation. The 2013 House farm bill would remove that flexibility, forcing the five states that have raised their SNAP asset limit, and the 36 states that have eliminated the asset test entirely, to present food stamp recipients with a terrible choice: either burn through your savings until you achieve sufficient insolvency, or make do without.
“Strict asset limits tell families: ‘Don’t you dare save or make responsible financial decisions,’” said Reid Cramer, director of the Asset Building Program at the New American Foundation, in a press release Wednesday. “We’re forcing them to accept long-term poverty in exchange for short-term assistance.”
Yet forcing families to choose between their savings and food security—a policy Cramer calls “beyond counter-productive”—is precisely how the House farm bill would achieve nearly 60 percent of its $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts. Without the ability to look beyond outdated federal criteria, states would have no choice but to enforce the arbitrary $2,000 cutoff for savings, disqualifying massive numbers of working people who live everyday on the edge of poverty. Even owning a car worth with a market value of $5,000 or more could prevent applicants from receiving food stamps under the House bill, regardless of how little equity they actually have in the vehicle. For low income families living in rural and suburban areas without access to public transportation, that provision alone could mean having to choose between keeping their job or putting food on the table.
These are the kinds of decisions that trap people in poverty. And although it is unlikely that the House farm bill would survive reconciliation with the Senate, let alone the President's veto, the fact that the House has decided asset testing is an acceptable way to cut SNAP is deeply troubling. It is doubtful that asset testing even works as a shortcut for deficit reduction, as any budgetary savings are likely to be offset by the consequent rise in long-term poverty. If Republicans could look beyond their aversion to poverty-reduction programs in this instance, they might see that a policy that disincentivizes the working poor from saving money (or buying a car to seek out a better job) can only have counterproductive effects.