State will lose $144 million a year as food-stamp extra benefit expires
More than a million Washington residents will see their food-stamp benefits reduced starting Friday when a temporary, 13.6 percent increase authorized as part of the 2009 economic-stimulus bill expires.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Food-stamp benefits for more than 1.1 million children and adults in Washington will shrink starting Friday, thanks to an expiring temporary bump in aid paid for with the 2009 stimulus package.
The cuts — which undo a 13.6 percent increase authorized as part of the federal government’s $787 billion response to the Great Recession — will reduce monthly food allotments by a maximum of $11 per person and $29 for a family of three.
State officials estimate the reduction will cost Washington $144 million a year in lost federal assistance. Nationwide, low-income Americans will forgo $5 billion in the current fiscal year that would have helped stretch their grocery budgets.
The cuts work out to just 35 cents a day for each person. But poverty experts say that with food-stamp benefits averaging about $4.25 a day, the reductions will add up to lost meals.
“We are worried about the impact on beneficiaries,” said Stacy Dean, vice president of food-assistance program for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a fiscal-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
Nearly half of the 600,000 households in Washington on Basic Food, as the program is called in the state, include children. And nearly a quarter of those receiving food stamps are elderly or have disabilities.
The federal government last year paid out nearly $75 billion in food-stamp benefits.
In Washington, most people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $39,060 for a three-person household, qualify for Basic Food. But benefits shrink steeply beyond minimal incomes; a single full-time worker earning the state minimum wage of $9.19 an hour gets $16 a month.
The expiration of the extra aid comes two days after congressional Democrats and Republicans opened negotiations to reconcile their vastly different spending plans for food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Funding for food stamps makes up 80 percent of the farm bill. But Congress was unable to renew the five-year farm bill before it ended Sept. 30.
Senate Democrats passed a farm bill that would trim some $4 billion in food stamps over a decade. House Republicans want to cut nearly 10 times as much, or $39 billion. Three-quarters of the savings would come from cutting the number of eligible recipients; the rest would come from reducing benefits.
Much of the rest of the money in the farm bill helps pay premiums for farmers to insure their crops against droughts, flooding and other disasters, as well as direct payments for producers of wheat, cotton and other commodities. Critics say the roughly $15 billion in spending needlessly subsidizes wealthy farmers, pays them even when their fields are fallow and is unfairly skewed toward specific crops.
Dean said she was hopeful Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is jointly leading a congressional conference committee on the budget with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will be able to protect safety nets for low-income Americans as the parties hammer out a common spending blueprint.
It’s unclear whether the 41 lawmakers who make up the separate conference committee on the farm bill will take up the issue of restoring the enhanced food-stamp benefits — or how much further the program’s spending will be cut in future years.
A spokesman for Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, the only conferee from Washington state, did not directly answer whether she would insist on undoing the latest cuts.
“Congresswoman DelBene will continue to fight to protect and strengthen SNAP, which is a lifeline for millions of working families, children, veterans and seniors,” said Viet Shelton.
Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, repeated a frequent refrain after the first farm-bill conference meeting.
“As you’ve heard me say,” Lucas said, “we don’t have new money. We don’t have old money. We don’t have any money.”
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