There are some choices you should never be forced to make – whether to heat your home or serve dinner is right at the top of my list. There shouldn’t be an “or” between those needs, but some members of Congress are determined to cut assistance for low-income people even when it’s desperately needed.
Food stamp benefits were just reduced – cut to about $1.40 per meal – and the U.S. is facing its coldest weather in years. Now, we’re asking low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and struggling families whether to “heat or eat”? You can’t be serious.
Last fall, House Republicans passed a bill to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) by around $40 billion over the next ten years. These deep cuts to SNAP are one reason that negotiations with the Senate over the Farm Bill have stalled.
The House bill has a number of extreme measures, including preventing states from getting waivers to help high-unemployment areas and ending benefits for families who have assets or gross incomes slightly above the regular SNAP guidelines (just over $19,000 in net income for a family of three). These families often qualify for food stamps because of higher-than-average child care or housing costs.
Another one of the bill’s measures claims to eliminate a nasty “loophole” – but we’re not talking about closing tax loopholes that enable multinational corporations to pay little or no federal income tax by shifting jobs and profits overseas. We’re talking about low-income individuals and families receiving assistance to buy food and heat their homes.
States currently have the ability to coordinate SNAP and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps families pay energy costs to heat and cool their homes. The streamlining was designed to ease administrative burdens and target families who might be facing the terrible decision of paying for food or heat. That “choice” is very much a reality. A 2011 survey of LIHEAP recipients, conducted by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, found that nearly one-third of respondents reported going without food at some point in the previous five years because of high energy costs.
Essentially, “heat and eat” permits states to use a standard utility allowance for LIHEAP recipients, rather than calculating a home’s actual, changing utility costs. The allowance is based on typical utilities paid in the state and qualifies some households for higher SNAP benefits. In an attempt to reach low-income families who aren’t making ends meet, some states have offered small LIHEAP benefits to families, which then boost their SNAP benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, earlier proposals have attempted to curb that particular practice, but this current bill goes much further.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that ending the state option to coordinate “heat and eat” would reduce SNAP by nearly $9 billion in the next decade. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) predicts that 850,000 households could lose $90 each month in benefits.
Both programs provide crucial but modest benefits. Feeding America reports that 90 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month. Similarly, the gap between LIHEAP payments and the cost of utilities leaves many families struggling to pay the difference – and that gap is growing. I wrote about sequester cuts to LIHEAP recently, and those cuts have resulted in smaller LIHEAP grants, while heating costs continue to rise.
In evaluating the effect of “heat and eat” coordination, FRAC found that the most positive impact was on households with elderly members and people with disabilities – a group who needs a strengthened safety net, not continued cuts. Here at NWLC, we’ve been keeping a close eye on the alarming rates of poverty and extreme poverty among seniors, particularly women. According to Census data, LIHEAP helped about 370,000 poor seniors in 2012 —70 percent of whom were women.
The LIHEAP/SNAP debate isn’t over yet, and there’s still time for Congress to protect these benefits. Unlike the “heat or eat” choice, the decision on this bill is clear.