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Beam: Food stamp issue complicated

Last Modified: Saturday, September 21, 2013 10:53 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Are there people receiving federal food stamps who shouldn’t be? The answer to that question is complex, and it depends on whom you ask.

The U.S. House passed a food stamp bill last week that offers some clues as to whether the program is too liberal and whether some citizens are ripping it off.

The legislation would make $4 billion in annual cuts to the food stamp program. That’s $40 billion over 10 years. More than 47 million Americans, 1 in 7, are receiving benefits from the $80 billion-a-year program.

The House vote was 217-210. Every Democrat and 15 Republicans were on the losing side, but it was close.

If the House bill were to survive, 3.8 million Americans would lose their food stamp benefits. And 71,000 Louisianians would be among that number, according to The Times-Picayune. However, the bill has a slim chance of making it through a Senate-House conference committee. And the White House has threatened a veto.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “the Senate will never pass such hateful, punitive legislation.”

Louisiana has 941,000 citizens receiving food stamps, which is 1 in 5 residents, the newspaper said. Since the U.S. Census Bureau reports that one of every five residents in the state lives in poverty, apparently most recipients in this state qualify for food stamps.

Nationwide, the cost of the benefit that is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has doubled since the 2008 recession. So, if the national economy is rebounding and employment is increasing, as the Obama Administration insists, why hasn’t the number of recipients dropped? Either the economy isn’t going as well as we’ve been told or people are abusing the food stamp system. The odds are it’s a combination of the two.

The Senate has a food stamp bill, but it only makes one-tenth of the cuts recommended by the House — $400 million a year and $4 billion over 10 years.

One feature of the Senate bill explains why there are questions about eligibility for food stamps. The legislation would quit giving low-income people as little as a dollar a year in home heating assistance, even when they don’t have heating bills. That dollar makes them eligible for food stamp benefits.

The House bill does four other things. It would allow states to put work requirements in place for food stamp recipients who aren’t needed at home for child care. States would also be allowed to drug-test food stamp applicants and end waivers that allow able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely. Finally, it would end the system that lets people qualify for food stamps automatically if they already receive other benefits.

As you can see, the qualifications for food stamps are extremely lenient. And that opens the system to abuse.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said the program is out of control. He said the goal of the House bill is to deny benefits to adults who turn down a job. He compares the job requirement to the same type legislation passed during the Bill Clinton presidency that said welfare recipients could be required to find a job.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said, “... The truth is anyone subjected to the work requirements under this bill, who are able-bodied under 50, will not be denied benefits if only they are willing to sign up for the opportunity for work.”

OK, so maybe the House has the right idea. Well, not so fast say some of those who help citizens in need.

“This is America, and if we can’t make sure our own people are fed appropriately, I think that is very disturbing,” Tim Robertson, director of Food for Families, told the Picayune. Natalie Jayroe, president of Second Harvest Food Bank, said, “we’re talking about adults who just can’t find work in the current economy and other adults who work but don’t make enough to provide their families with enough food. We believe these cuts would add to the level of desperation that too many people in our country face.”

Jayroe said what the Obama folks don’t like to talk about. Much of the recent job growth has been in low-wage service jobs that don’t pay enough for workers to feed their families without food stamp help, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the food stamp program. It said in a recent report the program made the difference between children going to bed hungry and getting the bare minimum they need to stay healthy.

Supporters of cutting food stamp benefits will argue that food banks and the agriculture department have a stake in keeping the program at its current levels. They do, and that is why there are no easy answers to the food stamp question.

What is needed is an in-depth analysis of the program. Even critics of the House-passed bill admit there is fraud, although they insist it isn’t widespread.

We said last week that lax security may have made it easier for a mentally unstable man to kill 12 workers at the Washington Navy Yard. Isn’t it possible that some of the people who administer the food stamp program haven’t been as vigilant as they should be about making sure applicants are qualified for assistance? Unfortunately, that appears to be the case in the way many government programs are handled.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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