President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill today, locking in more than $8 billion in cuts to the nation's food stamp program. As many as 850,000 households will see their benefits drop by an average $90 per month when the law goes into effect.
Obama's signature comes with votes from both sides of the aisle, including support from 89 Democrats in the House and 46 in the Senate. But the cuts themselves will not be felt equally. Of the $8.7 billion in food stamps that the Farm Bill cuts, virtually every dollar comes from just fifteen states and the District of Columbia. As much as 30 percent of the cuts would come from New York State alone.
The reason is something called “heat and eat”—a policy that has allowed states to streamline social services by extending food stamp benefits to people who already receive support for their heating and cooling bills under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). In recent years, some states have taken advantage of that policy to award low-income households token LIHEAP benefits—sometimes as little as one dollar—so they can qualify for additional food stamps. The 2014 Farm Bill will end that policy, resulting in substantial benefit cuts for low-income households.
The “heat and eat” policy has been a divisive issue for Democrats. On the one hand, the existence of a loophole in the food stamp program perpetuates a perception among conservatives that low-income people are somehow cheating the system. Closing the loophole prevents critics from making that argument, and results in a fairer distribution of benefits.
On the other hand, millions of low-income families struggle every day with food security. “Heat and eat” advocates say we should be doing everything in our power to combat hunger and poverty, especially in those areas of the country with the highest cost of living. That's an emotional argument, and a powerful one.
With America's safety net under siege, critics are right to promote an equitable distribution formula for government benefits. Still, the hypocrisy of singling out the food stamp program is hard to stomach. Why is it that Congress only gets serious about closing loopholes when they help the poor?