Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

January 2, 2014

Closing a food stamp loophole

‘Heat and eat” sounds like the instructions on a package of microwaveable noodles. Recently, however, the phrase has taken on new significance as the nickname for a loophole in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, that costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year — and gives an otherwise vital component of the social safety net a black eye.

SNAP benefits vary according to a recipient’s monthly income and expenses. If you can document costs for utilities such as heating, your benefits go up accordingly. However, some recipients have no utility bills, since the cost is included in their rent. In such cases, the rules allow states to factor in a payment from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in lieu of a utility bill. And a LIHEAP payment of as little as $1 per year can leverage significant extra food stamp payments. So more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the practice of issuing token LIHEAP payments to food stamp applicants — heat and eat.

While technically legal and undoubtedly well-intended, this maneuver results in many people receiving money based on utility expenses they did not actually incur. To be sure, SNAP benefits hardly pay for a luxury diet, and current law calls for the total cost of the benefits to decline from $76 billion in fiscal 2013 to $65 billion in 2023. Yet at a time when the Republican-controlled House is already calling for nearly $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade, heat and eat looks less like a clever way to help the poor and more like a political gift to SNAP’s perennial opponents.

A proposal under discussion by House and Senate farm-bill negotiators would curtail this misuse of SNAP at a savings of $8 billion over the next decade. Basically, the plan would establish a minimum LIHEAP payment — $20 a year — to qualify for enhanced benefits, which is more than the states that currently play the heat-and-eat game would be willing to pay. Only 4 percent of all SNAP families would see a benefit reduction; crucially, none would lose basic eligibility.

It is, indeed, galling that the savings would effectively fund subsidies for farmers elsewhere in the bill rather than for other low-income programs, as we’d prefer. That’s a reason to pursue a long-term alternative to the legislative linkage of SNAP and agriculture programs. For now, though, this reform to SNAP is the best hope for staving off more damaging cuts.

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