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$40 billion cut to SNAP in House ratchets up debate

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2013. Congress works this week on immigration reform, a farm bill, and continues to investigate controversies with the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Agency. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2013. Congress works this week on immigration reform, a farm bill, and continues to investigate controversies with the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Agency. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There are changes coming for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — that much is clear from the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote Thursday to cut the program by $40 billion over the next 10 years.

The cuts would take away SNAP food benefits for about four million people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It’d be unlikely that the Senate, which had previously voted to trim the program by $4.5 billion, would support the bill. President Barack Obama has said he will veto if the bill reaches his desk.

Still, though, the vote illustrates a major debate among the nation’s policymakers over the program.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said this week on the House floor that the cuts, which will partly target able-bodied adults who refuse to work or look for work, will refocus “the program on those who need it most.”

“There may be some who choose to abuse this system,” said Cantor on Thursday. “It’s wrong for hardworking, middle class Americans to pay for that.”

But Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who represents half of Franklin County, including Greenfield, called the bill one “of the most heartless pieces of legislation” he has ever seen. He said the cuts will only further hurt America’s needy citizens, millions of whom he said are already hungry and without food on a daily basis.

“Opponents have railed against the program time and time again, creating a public perception that this is not a good program, that people on program are lazy, that it creates a culture of dependency,” said McGovern. “Can it be improved? Yes. But not by cutting it to nothing.”

If cuts do occur, however small or large, they will have a trickle-down effect on states and communities. Average household benefits in the SNAP program are already in line to see a 10 to 15 percent decrease when federal stimulus money runs out in November.

It may mean more people showing up for free food at local pantries like the Greenfield-based Center for Self-Reliance. The pantry serves 3,600 people from Franklin County and about half the people who come in on a regular basis are enrolled in SNAP, said coordinator Dino Schnelle.

But he wonders how many people aren’t coming now because the benefits are enough to maintain their food budgets.

“I won’t know that until they show up in December saying, ‘Our food stamps were cut and now we need help,’” he said.

State legislators are also eying the possible cuts because it will mean they’ll have to be more efficient with how they distribute the benefits.

“That concerns us,” said State Rep. Donald Humason, a republican from Westfield and a state senatorial candidate. “There are a large number of people that are truly in need (and the) state doesn’t have the benefits.”

The Massachusetts debate around the SNAP program, which is operated by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, has centered on how to best crack down on fraudulent cases.

A state audit earlier this year found over a thousand cases where recipients’ accounts continued to receive benefits and were used after they were reported to be dead. Five regional offices could not provide documentation that accounted for over 30,000 unmarked electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards — which people use to pay with their benefits at stores and farmers markets.

Some recipients requested numerous EBT cards, which the auditor said suggests trafficking of the cards. The audit found that nearly 10,000 people requested and received 10 or more EBT replacement cards, with one individual issued as many as 127 cards.

Republicans, like Humason, have pushed for stricter regulations as an attempt to ensure that the people who need it the most are the ones receiving the benefits.

Democrats are treading lighter, not wanting deserving people to lose out in the process.

“We want to make sure there’s no fraud ... eliminate anything like that, but you can’t do that at the expense of people,” said State Rep. Paul Mark, a Democrat from Peru, who represents some Franklin County towns including Greenfield.

One change that both sides agreed on: adding photo identification to EBT cards. The measure passed during the last budget cycle, with legislators overriding changes by Gov. Deval Patrick that would have required an accompanying cost-effectiveness study of the photo IDs.

The new provision concerns Andrew Morehouse, the executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. It will be difficult for elders and disabled people to travel to an office to get a photo taken and, overall, the EBT photo ID system has been found to be ineffective and expensive in other states, he argued.

Learn more

A summary of Republican’s arguments for the bill to cut SNAP:

Rep. Jim McGovern’s blog posts and floor statements in defense of the SNAP program:

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ updates on SNAP reform: http://goo.gl/IKl8Z2

The official Dept. of Agriculture website on SNAP: http://goo.gl/W9aiVJ



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