Proposed food stamp cuts could push Minnesotans off the program

EBT card
The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the five-year Farm Bill, which would cut food stamps by $16.5 billion over the next decade, largely by tightening eligibility rules. About 80 percent of the farm bill funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
MPR File Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The $500 billion farm bill making its way through Congress concerns those who work with hungry Minnesotans.

The House Agriculture Committee voted Thursday to pass its version of the five-year bill, which would cut food stamps by $16.5 billion over the next decade, largely by tightening eligibility rules. About 80 percent of the farm bill funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The cuts would have big consequences for some of the more than 520,000 Minnesotans who receive food stamps, state Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said. Some would become ineligible for the program.

"What it means is a number of Minnesotans will no longer have access to food, food that they need keep those children in school and doing well in school, to keep our seniors from having to make hard choices between paying their rent and buying the food they need," Jesson said.

That's because the bill curtails categorical eligibility, an option that allows states to adopt looser requirements for food stamps.

In 2010, Minnesota raised the income limit to 165 percent of poverty, or $38,033 for a family of four. Minnesota also eliminated an asset test, so food stamp recipients can still have assets like a car or a savings account.

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The House bill would force states to follow stricter income guidelines and give applicants an asset test to determine eligibility.

"It would mean that a senior citizen who perhaps had saved $4,000 for burial costs would no longer be eligible," Jesson said. "It would mean that a young mom who's working and has kids at home, but has to have a modest car to get to her job, she wouldn't qualify for food support for her family."

Such cases fed a contentious debate in the House Agriculture Committee. Underlying that debate was a philosophical question: How poor should one be to qualify for food stamps?

Advocates for the hungry say allowing people to keep some resources can help them get back on their feet quickly. But supporters of the House bill say the food stamp program has grown too big.

Although the recession has contributed to the number of people on food stamps, loose eligibility rules have helped pushed up the food stamp rolls to a level the nation cannot afford, said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"The original idea of food stamps is that if you lose your job, you spend down your liquid assets, and when you run below $2,000 in cash, you get some food stamps," he said. "The current way the system works, you can have $100,000 sitting in the bank, and if you're unemployed, you can get food stamps. It's a total waste of money. It's like a bad joke."

Rector points out that the asset test doesn't count burial plots. He argues that food stamp applicants should have to take such a test, even if some people who need help are denied benefits.

"I'm sure you can find one or two, or a dozen, or a hundred very sympathetic cases like that," he said. "But you're also going to find tens of thousands of people that are now taking assistance under this program who don't really need this."

Deborah Huskins, an area director for the Human Services and Public Health Department in Hennepin County, said cases of people who don't need food stamps acquiring them are not common.

"The people who come to us are quite, quite poor," she said.

When people apply for food stamps, they come to Huskins' department. She said she doesn't see people coming in to apply for food stamps who have lots of savings or extra resources.

"This is a last resort," she said. "Most people who apply for assistance really would not like to be applying for assistance."

State officials do not know how many people would lose benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 1.8 million Americans would become ineligible if the House bill became law.

The fate of the Farm Bill is unclear. House Republicans leaders appear reluctant to bring it to the floor before the month-long August recess. Even if the House passes the bill, it will need to be reconciled with the Senate bill, which makes far smaller cuts to food stamps.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.