Food stamp cuts to hit Pa. harder

HARRISBURG -- A proposed $8 billion in cuts to the food stamp program in the federal farm bill would fall disproportionately on recipients of the program in Pennsylvania and about a dozen other states.

The U.S. House approved the compromise, five-year farm bill, 251-166, Wednesday, setting up likely final passage by the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill later this week.

In Pennsylvania, an estimated 175,000 households would lose an average of $65 per month in benefits, according to a calculation from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger based on state statistics. The loss would total about $136 million statewide annually.

Nationally, the cuts proposed represent about 1 percent of the food stamp program, but that's being shouldered by recipients in 15 states -- including Pennsylvania -- and the District of Columbia due to the elimination of a provision known as "heat and eat." This rule allows states to essentially take an administrative shortcut and perform less paperwork and for households receiving federal heating assistance to receive a larger food stamp benefit.

One of the highest ranking federal officials overseeing the food stamp program said Wednesday that, in light of more draconian, across-the-board program cuts that had been proposed to the food stamp program last year during farm bill negotiations, this was a concession many advocates for the program could live with.

"In the real world, this was as good as we might have hoped for," Kevin Concannon, under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said.

"I'm not suggesting it won't have an impact," said Mr. Concannon, who oversees the nutrition programs of the USDA, such as food stamps, school meals, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, knows as WIC.

Advocacy groups statewide are concerned that low-income people in Pennsylvania are shouldering an unfair burden with the cuts.

"Because only some states opt in to this provision, the brunt of these cuts are going to fall on Pennsylvania," said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger group based in Pittsburgh.

"You can argue the politics of it. You can argue the mechanism of how the 'heat and eat' program operates," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "I challenge anyone who thinks this is a good deal to come and answer our phones for a few days after this goes into effect."

The proposed cuts, along with funds lost to the food stamp program last year due to the expiration of stimulus funds, exceed the total annual meal distribution by Feeding America food banks in Pennsylvania last year, said Caryn Long, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, a network of nine food banks statewide.

"There is no way that charity can make up for the cuts we're going to see," she said.

The number of people using the program has grown substantially in recent years as the economy has remained stagnant for many workers, and many states have taken outreach measures for those who are eligible for the program. Mr. Concannon emphasized that increasingly among food stamp households, many individuals are working.

"People want to work. We know that from people in the SNAP program," Mr. Concannon said, referring to the food stamp program by the acronym for its official name, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In addition to what's being proposed as part of the farm bill, the program recently saw benefit cuts for all recipient households nationwide Nov. 1, when stimulus funds that had been allocated to the program in 2009 expired. The cut was about $29 per household per month for a family of three, or $36 per household per month for a family of four.

Additionally, Mr. Concannon said Wednesday he hopes that Pennsylvania will get rid of the asset test instituted in 2012 for food stamp recipients. The test disqualifies food stamp applicants under age 60 who have more than $5,500 in assets and those who are disabled or older than age 60 with more than $9,000 in assets.

"It has the effect of hurting families who are doing all they can and may have some modest assets and not have income," he said.

Mr. Concannon said he was encouraged that the state's public welfare secretary has stated her willingness to consider repealing the test.

"These are Pennsylvanians who should be helped. In many cases, they are working part time, they have recently lost their jobs. We should be able to help," he said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare could not be reached Wednesday.

Kate Giammarise:, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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