Pennsylvania among states to block food stamp cuts

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania will join more than a half-dozen states and the District of Columbia to block as much as $1.2 billion in food stamp cuts, relying on a wrinkle in federal law to preserve aid for millions of people.

Of the 14 states and the District of Columbia affected by the reductions, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont plus D.C. are moving to block them, according to a survey. The others — California, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin — are considering doing the same.

Food stamp recipients absorbed a 5.4 percent cut in benefits when the American Recovery Act expired in November, a Pennsylvania state spokeswoman said. Gov. Tom Corbett became the third governor and only Republican to prevent the latest reductions when he announced his resistance on March 5.

“In these challenging economic times, Gov. Corbett believes Pennsylvania's most vulnerable population should not have to endure another hit to those benefits,” said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare.

His move will keep about 400,000 Pennsylvania families from losing roughly $300 million in aid, a reduction that would have amounted to cuts of about $65 a month for many families, she said.

The farm bill Congress approved with bipartisan support this year slashed a total of $8.6 billion over 10 years from food stamps, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The reductions occurred after years of debate over how to stem the continued growth of spending on food stamps, which topped $82 billion in fiscal year 2013.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that the states were undercutting the intentions of Congress. He called on his colleagues to crack down on the “fraud” by states in avoiding the cuts.

“Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps,” Boehner said.

The eight states and D.C. have been able to thwart Congress because the cuts affect only those states using the so-called “Heat and Eat” provision of the food stamps program. Under “Heat and Eat,” a household is entitled to more food aid if it is enrolled in the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps people pay their utility bills. Each state gets a specific amount of federal money to run LIHEAP as it sees fit.

Under the old version of “Heat and Eat,” it didn't matter how much LIHEAP help a family got. Some states signed food stamp recipients for LIHEAP, then gave them a nominal payment of as little as $1 per year.

Under the revised rules, food stamp recipients must receive at least $20 each year in utility assistance to qualify for more food aid. The change was projected to ax benefits by about $90 per month for the 850,000 households affected. The average monthly benefit per household for all 50 states and the District of Columbia in fiscal year 2013 was $275.

In response, states boosted LIHEAP funding to meet the threshold. In most cases, they have been able to do so without using state dollars.

Pennsylvania is meeting the threshold by using about $8 million of its LIHEAP money — about $190 million this year, Gillis said. She said the money to preserve food stamp aid will come from unused funds at the end of the heating season.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in February that his state would spend about $6 million in federal funds to preserve $457 million in food aid for 300,000 households.

Connecticut will spend $1.4 million of its federal LIHEAP money to preserve $66.6 million in food aid for 50,000 households.

If the other “Heat and Eat” states follow, they would nullify almost all of the projected food stamp cuts in the farm bill, which would have affected about 4 percent of the households in the program.

None of the states contacted by Stateline indicated a willingness to accept the reductions as enacted.

Some critics of “Heat and Eat” are calling on Congress to return to the issue to ensure the cuts are carried out. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gave its blessing to the demise of the program after the farm bill passed, with its founder calling the “Heat and Eat” provision “difficult to defend.”

“States don't really have any accountability for this money,” said Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation. and Trib Total Media staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this report.

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