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Tension grows over food stamps

For decades, the farm bill has passed Congress with support from urban and rural politicians with a common interest in food.  As the House Agriculture Committee marked up its version of a five-year farm bill Wednesday, that urban-rural coalition appeared more fragile than ever.

Democrats on the committee made an impassioned plea to avoid cutting spending on the nutrition title, which would take up nearly 80% of the farm bill's spending, arguing that the committee would be hurting millions of single parents, children and elderly Americans who would lose eligibility for food stamps. Republicans, meanwhile, said the bill's projected cut in spending by more than $16 billion over 10 years represents slower growth for the bill's nutrition title, not a real cut.

The committee's bill tightens up rules for applying for food stamps. Low income Americans who are offered other forms of financial support in some states have also been automatically qualified to sign up for food stamps. The bill would end those practices, as well as eliminating food stamp eligibility for lottery winners and many college students living at home.

Senator Jim McGovern (D-MA) offered an amendment to restore $16.5 billion to the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for the food stamp program, which is now offered through electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that look like a plastic debit card.

McGovern told committee members that the error rate for SNAP is one of the lowest of all federal programs, about 1.8%, and that it includes people who are excluded from food stamp eligibility as well as those who qualify. And, he said, even in states that have been offering other ways to enroll in SNAP, recipients still have to meet USDA's income tests.

"These cuts will result in less food for hungry Americans, period," McGovern said. And he cast doubt on the idea that a lot of people are trying to game the system to get food stamps.

"People don't sit back and dream about the day they can qualify for SNAP," he said, adding that most people don't know the average benefit is $1.50 per meal per day.

"It has become fashionable to blame the poor for our budgetary problems and diminish their struggles," McGovern said.

Representative Joe Baca (D-CA), who at one time in his life had to use food stamps to feed his own family, said "This debate is about much more than the dollar figures. There is a very human cost to the action we take today...This farm bill will turn back the clock on the progress we have made. Two to three million people would loose SNAP eligibility."

Republicans on the committee said it's not their goal to keep food from hungry children.

"I don't think there's anybody in this room who is unsympathetic to people who are on hard times," said Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX).

The committee's vice chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said,  "I've been listening to my friends on the other side of the aisle" who describe the $16 billion reduction in SNAP funding as a cut.  "The fact of the matter is, it's not a cut at all," he said.

Food stamp spending has been increasing and will continue to increase under this farm bill, he said. Under the current law 77% of farm bill spending goes to nutrition. Under this bill, 78.9% will go to food stamps.

"The reforms, I think, are well called for," Goodlatte said.

After more debate and a voice vote that drew a loud response from both sides, a roll call vote showed McGovern's amendment failing by a vote of 15 to 31.

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