House Republicans pushing bill to end food aid to millions

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WASHINGTON -- House Republicans plan to vote on a bill next week that could push millions of people off U.S. food aid programs that have expanded since the economic downturn, potentially burdening charities that help feed the hungry.

The $40 billion in cuts to nutrition programs over 10 years included in the bill would be a 5.2 percent reduction from what the Congressional Budget Office estimates would be spent under current policy. Private organizations that provide free meals say it would send many more hungry people to their doors.

"We have no ability to make up for these cuts," said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the Food Bank of New York City. No "magic charity" is sitting on the sidelines waiting to make up the difference, she said. Ms. Purvis said her food bank is the largest in the nation, providing as many as 62 million meals a year.

Almost 48 million people in 23 million U.S. households relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps, the largest of the nutrition programs. The figures are for June, the last month for which preliminary data were available, according to the USDA. Monthly food stamp usage has risen more than 18 percent over the past four fiscal years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The proposed reduction would remove 76 million meals a year from New York City alone.

"Where would we get that?," Ms. Purvis said in a telephone interview from a soup kitchen in Harlem. "That's more meals than we provide in a year."

Republicans have said their measure would cut spending by tightening eligibility requirements including on able-bodied adults younger than 55 who don't have dependents.

Backers of the bill say they want to curb waste and abuse.

"I think a lot of our members want to finally make real reforms to the food-stamp program," said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the programs. The goal is to "ensure that while you have a safety net you shouldn't be giving welfare benefits to people who are able-bodied and capable of getting a job who just choose to continue to get food stamps when they can actually go and work."

Spending on domestic nutrition assistance programs would reach $764 billion over 10 years if current policies continue, according to a June report on farm bill spending from the Congressional Research Service. The report cites the non-partisan CBO, which gauges the cost of legislation for U.S. lawmakers. The CBO hasn't publicly released an estimate for the food-aid bill.

The food-assistance bill would end benefits to as many as 6 million low-income people, according to an August report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based group that studies the government's impact on low- and moderate-income families. The group wrote that it relied on reports and public comments from Republicans describing the measure. The bill's text hasn't been released.

"The increased demand on already-strained local services and charities would be substantial -- either displacing support for other needy residents, such as seniors and low-income working families, or leaving those cut off without sufficient food," the group wrote in its report.

House Republican leaders will have to depend on their own party members to pass the bill as Democratic leaders say their rank-and-file will oppose it.

"There are too many that through no fault of their own depend on these programs to feed their families," West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall said. "It's numbness, without any feeling of pain. They go and chop out these programs for people who are feeling a great deal of pain."

As part of a national lobbying campaign, advocates from New York City boarded buses Thursday to travel to Washington to talk to lawmakers ahead of the vote.

"This is going to be a fight that we're not going to stop," Ms. Purvis said. "You can't do one thing and walk away. It's that serious."

nation


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