Thousands of low-income families throughout Illinois could lose food aid if Congress passes the deep cuts to federal assistance currently being proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the findings of a report released this week.
In July, the House Agriculture Committee passed a version of the farm bill that would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $16 billion over the next 10 years.
The current form of the legislation, which is passed every five years, expired September 30. In June, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its version of the farm bill by a vote of 64-35, which included $4 billion in cuts to the program. Leaders in the Republican-led House have opted to wait until after the November election to put their version to a full vote.
According to the report, released by Voices for Illinois Children’s Fiscal Policy Center, a majority of the cuts would stem from the elimination of what is called “broad-based categorical eligibility”, which allows states to bypass eligibility criteria based solely on the federal requirements for the program and instead enroll households that are eligible for other federal need-based programs.
In order for a household to be eligible to receive SNAP benefits under all of the federal guidelines, they must have a gross monthly income either at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, have a net monthly income at or below 100 percent of the poverty line, and have “countable” assets totaling no more than $2,000.
SNAP eligibility within Illinois does not include the asset requirement and is based on meeting the gross monthly income requirement, which according to study author and Fiscal Policy Center Analyst David Lloyd, makes it more efficient and allows more families to qualify for the program.
“If additional [eligibility] barriers are erected, it is likely there will be people who will no longer be receiving SNAP benefits because of the burden of applying,” Lloyd said. “If you eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility, there essentially will be an asset test of $2,000, and that will make many families ineligible if they’ve been trying to save some money and build up their assets.”
Without broad-based categorical eligibility, Lloyd estimated 1.8 million people throughout the U.S. would lose benefits, which includes the loss of free breakfast and school lunches for as many as 280,000 children. In Illinois, that would mean an estimated loss of benefits for as many as 200,000 residents. “The proposed cuts to SNAP, especially in the House, would cause enormous harm to Illinois families,” Lloyd said.
Overall, the number of those who have receive SNAP benefits has increased sharply since the start of the Great Recession. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, participation in the program went from 30.8 million in October 2008 to a record high of 46 million by October 2011.
Not surprisingly, the increase has served as political fodder for Republicans this election season, with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney using the numbers to support his claim that the president’s policies have made matters worse for Americans.
But figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that the rise in SNAP recipients is in line with an overall increase in poverty, which increased sharply as a result of the economic downturn over the last few years. Figures for 2012 however suggest demand may have started to slow down, as the number of recipients from January to July increased by .4 percent, an improvement over the 2.7 percent increase that occurred during the same period in 2011.
“The increase in SNAP recipients is linked to an increase in need,” Lloyd said. “By cutting eligibility, all you’re doing is having a negative effect on families, you’re not actually decreasing the need.”
The attempt by some lawmakers to reduce SNAP funding seems to run contrary to public opinion. In a poll released in January by the Food and Research Action Center, of the more than 1,000 likely voters who were surveyed, 77 percent said they were opposed to cutting benefits.