The decision by the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee to apply their budget ax to the federal food stamp program is a step backward for the country. Food stamps have been a lifeline for families racked by the Great Recession and its aftermath, but the committee's leaders want to remove 2 million to 3 million low-income people from its rolls.
The full committee is expected to vote Wednesday to reduce spending in the federal food stamp program by $1.6 billion a year, four times the cuts passed by the Senate in its version of the farm bill. The program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides food aid to 46 million people, one in every seven Americans, ensuring that families don't go hungry in a nation of plenty.
This vital safety net is among the worst places to wring out deficit reductions. The food assistance program is a modest benefit that averages $1.50 per person per meal, and while participation has expanded because of the country's economic downturn, it is a highly efficient federal program. Nearly all recipients are deserving, with incomes below the poverty line, and the rate of error and fraud is under 3 percent. Florida has more than 3 million people in the program, a participation rate that has doubled since the financial crisis.
Most of the proposed cuts would come from ending the "categorical eligibility" option that gives states some flexibility to grant benefits even if households own a working vehicle of modest value and have gross incomes slightly over 130 percent of the poverty line but have disposable incomes below it. Florida takes advantage of this to provide more poor residents with help meeting their family's nutritional needs.
This kind of flexibility is particularly important for people whose financial situations fluctuate. For instance, working poor families may earn overtime for a few months but then suffer bouts of unemployment, with incomes jumping slightly over or under federal poverty thresholds. Emergencies such as hurricanes can affect incomes and assets suddenly, making people eligible under the less rigid rules just when they need the help most.
In real terms the food stamp program has helped address the problem of severe hunger in children, seniors and the working poor. It is an investment in health and security as well as a symbolic stand for a compassionate society. All federal programs need to be scrutinized as the nation looks for ways to reduce the deficit, but this House plan cuts too deeply.