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The Food Stamp Cookie Jar

This morning, I wrote a quick update on the sweeping child-nutrition bill that might pass Congress soon, and the standoff on its pay-for, a cut to food stamps, or SNAP benefits. (The bill has passed the Senate, but not yet the House.) The problem is not just that the Senate wants to cut food stamps, a move many House members oppose. The problem is what might be called the “food stamp cookie jar.”

Senate Democrats expanded SNAP benefits in the 2009 stimulus, and today nearly 40 million Americans, one in eight, rely on them to make ends meet. But the benefits are not generous — about $4.50 per person, per day, including the stimulus bump. I spoke with Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center about the benefits this summer. “We have been very supportive of the ARRA boost,” she said. “But it underscored that these benefits are not generous. Anecdotally, we heard that the ARRA boost let some SNAP recipients keep going to the supermarket in the third or fourth week of the month, rather than going to a soup kitchen starting after the second week. They were stretching out their benefits, and purchasing some more nutritious food, like fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Now, Congress is whittling those additional benefits away. Initially, the Senate made a $6.7 billion cut to the stimulus add-on to pay for Medicaid and teachers’ jobs funding this summer. But the bill came in more expensive than expected, so Democrats made a $12 billion cut. Then came the child-nutrition bill. Democrats looked again to SNAP, and took $1.3 billion from the program, pushing the cut date earlier.

Other bills have looked to the cookie jar as well. For instance, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced a new version of the tax extenders’ legislation last week. One of its pay-fors? SNAP benefits. The summary of that bill notes: “[E]ffective January 31, food stamp benefits will return to the levels that individuals would have received in 2014 under pre-Recovery Act law. This modification reduces the cost of the bill by $13.79 billion over ten years.”

Added together, passed and pending legislation proposed by Democrats cut food stamps — a last-resort safety-net benefit considered the single most effective form of stimulus — by more than $27 billion.

And that was what think tanks and hunger advocates worried about. Initially, Congress talked about reducing some of the additional benefits starting in 2015 or so, whittling just a few billion dollars away from the program. But once they saw the food stamp boost as a cookie jar, they couldn’t keep their hands away from it. Now, if the extenders’ legislation passes (and I’ll note it is not expected to come up for a vote anytime soon) all additional benefits will end in four months, meaning starting in February, SNAP recipients would suddenly start getting smaller checks.

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