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Published April 25, 2011, 06:11 AM

Republican budget includes plan to overhaul food assistance program

WASHINGTON — House Republicans resurrected a 1990s-era fight over food stamps in their recently approved budget, arguing that any serious attempt to cut spending must include an overhaul of government programs that help needy families pay for food.

By: Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — House Republicans resurrected a 1990s-era fight over food stamps in their recently approved budget, arguing that any serious attempt to cut spending must include an overhaul of government programs that help needy families pay for food.

Congress already has started cutting some food programs, including reducing the Women, Infants and Children Program by $500 million as part of a deal on this year’s budget. And last year, more than $2 billion in future funding for food stamps was redirected to other programs.

April 15, the House approved a Republican proposal to overhaul the $65 billion food stamp program — known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by replacing it with capped block grants to states, which would pay for the aid but make it contingent on work or job training. That proposal was included in a 2012 budget plan put forward by Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

His plan lays out a fiscal vision for cutting $6.2 trillion from yearly federal deficits in the coming decade and has drawn widespread attention for its call for transforming Medicare into a voucher-like system that subsidizes purchases of private health insurance. It is likely to meet strong opposition is the Senate, where Democrats still have a majority.

The food stamp component is similar to changes Republicans proposed as part of the welfare overhaul signed by President Clinton in 1996, and Ryan echoed arguments from 15 years ago in his proposal, saying “America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”

But back then, farm state Republicans like Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who then was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, blocked the reform effort.

Farm bill component

Congress authorizes spending on hunger and agriculture programs in a massive farm bill every five years, and farm state members typically have supported food programs in exchange for urban support for agriculture.

The next farm bill is due to be written next year, and it’s unclear whether Republicans will take a different approach this time around because of pressure from constituents clamoring for budget cuts. A spokeswoman for Roberts, now the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, says he hasn’t decided whether he will support an overhaul of the food stamp program.

Though many Republicans have enthusiastically supported Ryan’s budget on the House floor, few have mentioned food stamp issue in their speeches.

They may be hearing from constituents like 66-year-old Connie Downey of Omaha, Neb., a former real estate agent who saw her savings erode when she was diagnosed with lung disease. Downey is on the cusp of qualifying for food stamps, though her $3,000 in savings still puts her above Nebraska’s $2,000 asset limit for eligibility.

If her savings drop and she qualifies for federal food aid, Downey says she’d buy the nutritional drinks recommended by a visiting nurse as well as fruits and vegetables. Right now, she’s relying on a daily $2 delivery from Meals on Wheels.

“I had saved this money because I thought if I got sick, I’d have it to back me up,” Downey says. “I didn’t know it would keep me from being able to eat.”

The Agriculture Department says the food stamp program is designed to expand and contract with the economy. The average stay on the program is nine months, and half of the recipients are children.

Critical program

Anti-hunger advocates says they worry that funding cuts by Congress coupled with rising food costs could devastate families struggling in the sluggish economy. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says his department, which oversees SNAP and other food programs, is increasingly concerned that Congress is depleting the reserves.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has long sought more money for anti-hunger programs, says the suggested overhaul would dismantle the food stamp program by limiting money for it.

“Budgets are moral documents. They reflect our values,” he says. “There is a very real risk that we could lose some of these programs that provide a circle of protection to people who are poor.”

Conservatives says that may be necessary.

Ryan has argued states are encouraged to add people to the rolls because greater participation means increased funding. The program serves roughly 44 million people today, more than double the number a decade ago, he notes.

Opening debate

Opponents of the Ryan plan say food stamps not only help low-income people, they benefit farmers and the retailers who sell food.

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