WASHINGTON, D.C. — Using a wrinkle in federal law, at least seven states and the District of Columbia are blocking as much as $1.2 billion in food stamp cuts, preserving federal benefits for millions of people who otherwise would have had them cut by about $90 each month.
Of the 14 states and the District of Columbia affected by the cuts, at least seven states (Connecticut, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont) plus D.C. are moving to block them, according to a Stateline survey. The others — California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin — are considering doing the same.
The farm bill Congress approved with bipartisan support earlier this year cut a total of $8.6 billion over 10 years from the federal food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cuts came after years of debate over how to stem the continued growth of spending on food stamps, which topped $82 billion in fiscal year 2013.
The seven states and D.C. have been able to thwart Congress because the cuts only affect those states using the so-called “Heat and Eat” provision of the food stamps program. Under “Heat and Eat,” a household is entitled to more food aid if it is enrolled in the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps people pay their utility bills. Each state gets a specific amount of federal money to run LIHEAP as it sees fit.
Under the old version of “Heat and Eat,” it didn’t matter how much LIHEAP help a family got—only that they got it. So to maximize food stamp aid, some states were signing up food stamp recipients for LIHEAP, and then giving them a nominal payment of as little as $1 per year.
To close the “loophole,” as many called it, Congress changed the law. Under the new rules, food stamp recipients have to receive at least $20 each year in utility assistance to qualify for more food aid. The change was projected to cut benefits by about $90 per month for the 850,000 households affected. The average monthly benefit per household for all 50 states and the District of Columbia in fiscal year 2013 was $275.
But in response to the change, states have simply boosted LIHEAP funding to meet the new threshold. In most cases, they have been able to do so without using state dollars, though some states may be forced to dip into their own money if they exhaust their annual LIHEAP grants. States have varying amounts of leftover LIHEAP money, depending on how many of their residents were enrolled in the program during the year, the cost of energy and the severity of the weather.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in February his state would spend about $6 million in federal funds to preserve $457 million in food aid for 300,000 households. Connecticut will spend $1.4 million of its federal LIHEAP money to preserve $66.6 million in food aid for 50,000 households. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania surprised many by agreeing to spend $8 million in federal LIHEAP money to save $300 million in food aid for 400,000 households.
Rhode Island will avoid $69 million in food stamp cuts by spending $1.38 million more in federal utility aid. For Montana, $24,000 in additional LIHEAP spending will prevent $2 million in food stamp cuts. And Oregon will spend an additional $2 million in LIHEAP money to protect $55.7 million in food stamp benefits.
D.C. would have to boost its annual utility aid to $1.3 million from $60,000 in order to avoid cuts to its “Heat and Eat” recipients. It has promised to “find a solution” for continuing the program, without specifying where the money will come from.
If the other “Heat and Eat” states follow suit, they would nullify almost all of the projected food stamp cuts in the farm bill, which would have affected about 4 percent of the households in the program.
None of the states contacted by Stateline indicated a willingness to accept the cuts as enacted by Congress. (Delaware, a state often reported as being affected by the cuts, says it no longer uses the “Heat and Eat” provision, and isn’t subject to the cuts.)
But the “Heat and Eat” states stand on strange political ground. Though “Heat and Eat” had some defenders on Capitol Hill, there was bipartisan support for ending the program during the years of rancorous debate over the farm bill.
The Republican-controlled House targeted the program in its version of the farm bill, but so did the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the change addressed “misuse” of the program. Even the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gave its blessing to the demise of the program after the farm bill passed, with its founder calling the “Heat and Eat” provision “difficult to defend.”
Some critics of “Heat and Eat” are now calling on Congress to return to the issue to ensure the cuts are carried out, even though revisiting a debate over food stamps could be politically perilous for members of both parties. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, criticized states for getting around the cuts, according to news reports.
“States don’t really have any accountability for this money,” said Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who criticized the states in a blog post earlier this month and called on Congress to act.
The controversy is placing some state officials at odds with members of their own party in Washington. For Republican governors with presidential aspirations, such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, rolling back cuts that were hailed by conservatives could present political problems on the presidential campaign trail.
For those defending the states, the reason to support “Heat and Eat” is the same as it’s always been: It gives a boost to a safety-net program they see as insufficient to meet the needs of those who rely on it. They also note that the recent cuts came on top of a $5 billion across-the-board cut for all recipients enacted last November.
“This is a really vulnerable population,” said Dave Yacovone, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families. Vermont will spend $300,000 to ensure at least $6 million in aid continues, if the legislature approves the move, as Yacovone expects it to. “We’re doing everything we can to strengthen the social safety net.”
As for those saying he’s gaming the system, Yacovone denies that as well.
“It’s a loophole they created,” he said of Congress, “so I would say I’m just using the law that they made.”