In our November 27 cover story, “Hunger Pains,” we reported on the programs and funding that feed Seattle’s hungry. At the time, a farm bill was pending that could cut food-stamp benefits to thousands of households. Though the bill passed, Washington state just diverted funds to salvage the benefits. Here’s the story.
For people like Lila Craig (not her real name), food-stamp benefits are not just a helping hand, they’re life support. At the beginning of each month, Craig sits down and tries to figure out how she’ll afford to feed her 13-year-old son. “It’s always hard. Every month it’s hard.” With a budget of only $347 a month, there’s no wiggle room. She remembers vividly how difficult it was last November, when she lost $20 in benefits due to budget reductions. “I used to always save $30 for the end of the month so I could buy fresh milk and eggs. When I lost that $20, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to adjust.” What she didn’t realize was that until last Wednesday, she was on the verge of losing more—a lot more.
At the end of February, the long-awaited federal Farm Bill—formally, the Agricultural Act of 2014—finally made it through the D.C. obstacle course, emerging, to little surprise, as a compromise of spending cuts and safeguards to vital programs. Historically, farm bills are among the most convoluted pieces of paper to come out of Washington, containing new rules for everything from school lunch programs to crop insurance to scientific research to, at last, the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—aka food stamps, EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, or any of the other methods of getting food to low-income families. As farm bills come and go, SNAP benefit levels fluctuate with the economy. In February, as we began to crawl out of the financial death pit, the Farm Bill included a reduction in benefits for approximately 40 percent of Washington’s SNAP recipients, a reduction that would have cut Craig’s monthly plan by as much as $90—until last Thursday, that is, when Governor Inslee announced steps to preserve our state’s SNAP benefits entirely, bypassing the federal bill’s cuts and ensuring that families get the benefits they need.
Until the check comes in the mail, many beneficiaries don’t even realize there’s been a policy change, or cut, or loss of benefits. This time, the cuts-that-nearly-were “weren’t really cuts,” according to Linda Stone, food policy director for Washington’s Children’s Alliance. They were more like adjustments, and affected only 14 states as the result of a program nicknamed “Heat and Eat.” To understand why, you have to go back a few years.
The 2009 recession encouraged creative utilization of a program called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and its new relationship with SNAP. At its core, LIHEAP is a way to help families in need with their utilities payments. Can’t afford your gas bill? Here’s a few bucks. Lost your job and your water got turned off? We’ll help you out.
As the recession gained steam, Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) staff took advantage of earlier legislation, which declared that if a family received LIHEAP benefits, they would automatically qualify for an increase of their food-stamp benefits—approximately $60 to $90 extra a month. To maximize the new relationship between LIHEAP and food stamps, state employees started giving all food-stamp families $1 in LIHEAP benefits, thereby triggering the food-stamp raise.
Many opponents dubbed it a loophole. “I don’t think it was,” says Stone. “It was a way to streamline the programs at a time when local offices were struggling to meet the high demand for efficient processing of applications.”
With the new Farm Bill, those automatic LIHEAP bonuses that started in 2009 were set to go away. As of March 10 of this year, new applicants were required to qualify for at least $20 in utilities assistance from LIHEAP (as opposed to the previous $1) in order to receive a food-stamp benefit bonus, while existing enrollees who would have lost their benefits would have also seen their checks cut in the next six to eight months. To meet that $20 utilities benefit need, families would be required to provide proof of utilities payments.
Stone expected that over 230,000 households would see the impact. But with the state’s recent announcement, none of those families will actually lose benefits. According to a statement by Inslee, “Obviously, the loss of tens of millions of dollars aimed at feeding hungry families is not acceptable. These families have already suffered from significant reductions in the help they receive, and this $90 a month is the only way many families and seniors are able to put any food on their table.” The money will come from existing federal funds reserved for social and health services. It’s a pool that’s not always deep enough to provide for everyone in need.
Getting legislators to add budgetary funds to food stamps is hard, especially when opponents can point to benefit misuse. Though it’s not as common as people like Nancy Grace or Glenn Beck would have you believe, food-stamp misuse is not unheard of. On March 31, the Seattle Police Department announced the conclusion of a massive sting operation that uncovered a bizarre EBT card/drug-trading/shrimp-buying ring near 12th and Jackson. EBT cards were sold for pennies on the dollar or traded directly for drugs. The cards were then used in bulk to buy huge quantities of groceries like meat, rice, and the ever-valuable shrimp. Those food supplies were then sold for a profit, to buy more drugs, more EBT cards, more shrimp, and so on and so on. It wasn’t a business you’d expect to see advertised on Kickstarter, but plenty of people found out about it and hundreds of EBT cards were abused.
It’s a story as sad as it is bizarre, because you know such incidents work against the people who rely on those benefits the most, hurt the ongoing debate over food-stamp benefit levels, and prolong the conversation, leaving desperate families to wonder when they’ll have enough to survive on. But for now, it looks like the chopping block is put away. Only time will tell when families like Craig will face it again.