Congress and the Future of SNAP

According to, in 2011 – 30,000 college students in Michigan were kicked out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly known as food stamps – after receiving food assistance through a loophole in a state law and costing the program $75 million a year. Last year, WPTV reported a Florida woman was charged with committing $24,000  worth of fraud after spending her food stamp money on plastic surgery, a stereo system, and paint job for her car. And just this past July, said a grocery store owner and 22 other people in Albany, New York were caught using food stamp cards to acquire cash instead of food items – costing the system $500,000 over the past 3 years.

These situations may seem slightly extreme, but they’re not as isolated as you might hope. Abuse, fraud, and waste in the SNAP system will be a topic for heated debate when Congress reconvenes this September. The debate is one for which Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman has been preparing for quite some time.

“We need to get back to the original intention of the food stamp program and that is to help people who genuinely need help, and that we help people get off of them at some point.”

A noble goal, but Stutzman says we’re facing problems a decade in the making.

“The program has grown from $260 billion in 2002 to almost $800 billion today,” he said. “We have, of course, had the recession and things have been difficult over the last several years, but even in the Bush administration we were seeing an increase in the food stamp program because they were pushing it harder. I think that the problems were already starting back then.”

Most members of Congress seem to agree the system has its flaws, so why has it taken so long to address them? The major setback has been the debate over splitting the Farm Bill.

SNAP has been a part of the Farm Bill since 1965, and with other nutrition programs had grown to receive about 80% of Farm Bill funding by 2010, according to the USDA website. While the Senate planned to keep nutrition programs in the Farm bill and cut $4 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, the House decided to create two separate bills – one for agricultural programs and one for nutrition programs – and proposed a $40 billion cut from SNAP over the next 10 years. The responses?

“I believe the strategy of splitting the Farm Bill is a mistake.” – Rep. Collin Peterson

“We should treat the food stamp program on its own, as its separate program.” – Rep. Paul Ryan

“What we have done is exclude some extraneous pieces that would cause the bill to fail.” – Rep. Pete Sessions

“Imagine calling the nutrition title of the Farm bill ‘extraneous.’” – Rep. Rosa Delauro

Senate Democrats see splitting the Farm Bill as the House’s excuse to then make ruthless cuts to SNAP, while House Republican’s view the Senate’s protests as refusal to discuss important reforms. The Farm Bill was set to be renewed last year, but the two radically different proposals led to a one-year extension that expires on September 30th.

Stutzman has his own plan that he’ll be bringing to the table next month. The Thune, Stutzman Bill – created with South Dakota Senator John Thune – proposes a $30 billion cut to SNAP. The cuts target duplicative programs like SNAP Employment and Training – which has a low rate of participation and is similar to 47 other existing federal E&T programs – as well as dual eligibility.

“That way when people are applying for help, they know that they would just be getting help in that particular program rather than them signing up and then they find out that ‘I’m eligible for food stamps’ or ‘I’m eligible for another program,'” said Stutzman.

Among other reforms, the Thune, Stutzman Bill calls for a database for cross-compliance to ensure SNAP recipients cannot receive food stamp benefits in more than one state, and eliminates bonuses for states that are reducing their program error rates.

Stutzman says valuable taxpayer money is going down the drain, so he and Senator Thune want to look at the specifics, and that the House’s Nutrition bill – separate from agriculture programs – has already allowed for a more substantial discussion regarding reforms.

The Congressman also hopes that reduced spending in SNAP will lead to more federal funding for organizations like the Community Harvest Food Bank of Fort Wayne. Jane Avery, the executive director of Community Harvest, says she’s not sure increased funds are on the horizon, but she also doesn't think they’re necessary. She believes the focus should be less on the money, and more on the food itself.

“Secretary Vilsack has said that we have 30% of all the food acres in this country that go to waste every year,” said Avery. “I think it would be appropriate for the government to acquire that abundance and make it available to food banks to get that food out, and if that happens, what’s the offset in the food stamp program? To me, that’s a good question to ask.”

And it’s one that Stutzman and his fellow House representatives will be attempting to answer in the coming weeks. House Speaker John Boehner has an ambitious plan to bring the nutrition bill up immediately when the House returns, appoint farm bill conferees the next day and finish the bill before the current extension expires on September 30th. However, with only 9 working days for Congress next month and stamps of approval needed from the Senate and the President to sign the bill into effect, the prospective timeline maybe a little too ambitious. On meeting the September 30th deadline, Stutzman said:

“I’d give it a fifty-fifty chance.”

The next chapter in the SNAP story begins when the House reconvenes on September 9th.