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Closing loopholes or eroding rights?: The politics of food stamps and “heat and eat”

By Miranda Everitt & Philip Rocco

Read enough political journalism and you will likely be convinced of a simple truth: public policy exists to serve economic ends. We grant tax deductions to encourage home ownership; we extend unemployment insurance to spur economic growth during a crisis. But there is more to public policy than the search for economic outcomes. Policies often confer social rights—powerful markers of status in society, entrenched in law and defended by courts.

As British sociologist T.H. Marshall put it in his 1950 lecture on “Citizenship and Social Class,” social rights give citizens “a modicum of welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.” As Shep Melnick points out, individual rights to government benefits evolved slowly over time, through statutes and jurisprudence. Because these rights are so cherished, it can be difficult for politicians to roll them back, but that doesn’t stop the GOP from trying.

Every five years (more or less), Congress passes a massive Farm Bill which sets agriculture, trade, energy and nutrition policy for the nation. About 80 percent of the spending in the bill is for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known more commonly as food stamps. The bill most likely to make it to President Obama’s desk contains $8.7 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years.

While most anti-poverty programs have spending caps (like housing assistance, child care and cash aid), SNAP is an entitlement program (like Medicare and Social Security). That means that anyone who is eligible for benefits — defined by a complicated mix of income, expenses, family size and a few other factors determined by states — can apply and receive them. SNAP spending grows and shrinks in response to need, not to political priorities.

GOP reformers have perennially proposed making SNAP a block grant to states, capping benefit levels without regard to natural disaster or swings in the economy. When block-granting proved a nonstarter in the most recent Farm Bill, “closing loopholes” became the budget-cutter’s battle cry.

The $8.7 billion in “savings” comes through restricting “heat and eat” provisions now used by the District of Columbia and 14 other states, including California.

What four weeks’ SNAP benefits could buy before recent cuts to the program. Photo by Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Under current eligibility rules, households with high housing and utility costs receive larger SNAP benefits. The federal poverty level ($19,530 for a family of three!) does not take very different costs of living into account — and spending more on rent and heat means having less money left over for food. Because heating and cooling bills fluctuate, tracking those costs precisely and continually adjusting benefits is the definition of administrative inefficiency. Instead, many states use a standard amount, which reflects the typical low-income household’s utility bill, to increase the household SNAP benefit.

To simplify things even further (for caseworkers, though not for you, dear reader!), states will give that standard allowance to any household receiving Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds. In “heat and eat” states, many families who can’t produce a separate heating bill receive between $1 and $5 of LIHEAP, which immediately qualifies them for the standard allowance, in turn boosting their SNAP benefits by up to $90 per month.

For states, this kind of coordination makes perfect sense. SNAP benefits are paid for entirely by the federal government, while states foot the bill more than half of administration costs. It’s rational for them to want to decrease administration costs while bringing in more federal benefits to stimulate local economies.

Meanwhile, LIHEAP, a block grant, never goes far enough. To get the most bang for their buck, states can offer $1 to $5 in LIHEAP benefit to families. By using just a little of the limited pot of LIHEAP funding, states lower administration costs and get more federal dollars for their residents. Though it seems complicated, all of this gives state administrators the flexibility they need to navigate a complex set of requirements.

… Or, you might call it a loophole.

The charecterization began in Heritage Foundation briefs, and is now common in news outlets such as NPR’s Planet Money, Washington Post, Bloomberg News and CBS News.

Why do reformers insist on calling program coordination a “loophole”? In short, because it helps them tarnish SNAP’s good reputation for efficiency and low error rates. By claiming the SNAP is filled with loopholes and illegitimate behavior, opponents are gradually chipping away at the idea that SNAP merits entitlement status.

President Clinton signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (“welfare reform”) in 1996. Photo from Social Security History archive.

The seeds of this rhetorical strategy were planted in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more commonly known as “welfare reform.” Welfare reform, which destroyed the program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), had two crucial effects on the discourse of poverty policy.

First, proponents of welfare reform, Republicans and Democrats alike, used the images of “welfare mothers” and “handouts” to eliminate the entitlement status of AFDC. In doing so, they publicly advocated the idea that no benefit programs were rights. Though this argument initially failed when Republicans tried to block grant SNAP in 1995, it did not go away. Since 1996, opponents of government spending on poverty have used the welfare-reform playbook on SNAP, with a now-yearly attempt to strip the program of its entitlement status by turning it into a block grant.

At a Heritage Foundation forum last fall, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–WI) called SNAP “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” In his 2012 budget proposal, Ryan combined the elimination of SNAP’s entitlement status with ending “heat and eat” by suggesting that state governments were abusing an unnecessary program.

Second, welfare reform further delegitimized the poor as seekers of social rights. Since the mid-1990s, state-level welfare-to-work programs have required benefit-seekers modify their behaviors in order to qualify for payments and for job-training programs. Anti-poverty programs now come with exorbitant policing of beneficiaries’ behaviors, including drug-testing, fingerprinting, and questioning regarding sexual relations. Nothing else we consider a right comes with this posture of mistrust (except, increasingly, the franchise).

By practicing these organizational routines daily, caseworkers (and ultimately the public) have come to blame poverty on the poor and to characterize benefit-seeking as “looking for handouts” and exploiting loopholes in programs. Recently, opponents of SNAP have spoken about closing the “heat and eat loophole” in the same breath as other punitive measures such as banning felons from food stamps for life, and making enrollment contingent on a drug test.

Targeting the heat-and-eat “loophole” for elimination might serve the political goals of SNAP’s opponents, but it makes no sense as public policy. Eligibility standards for LIHEAP and for SNAP are quite similar. Poor children consume fewer calories in winter. Nearly half of food pantry client households report having to choose between food and utility bills (and that’s after they’ve taken home pantry bags). Not to mention nutrition experts (and beneficiaries!) finding that SNAP benefit levels are already insufficient. Ending heat-and-eat hits households with a child or disabled or elderly member—three-quarters of SNAP beneficiaries — hardest.

But perhaps most importantly, it unfairly makes a dent in a well-functioning program that confers a meaningful social right: to eat. We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is bleak for the most vulnerable among us.

Miranda Everitt (@mirnanda) is a graduate student in public policy at UC Berkeley and researcher at the Food Labor Research Center there. Philip Rocco (@PhilipRocco) is a political science Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on federalism, public policy, and institutional change.

[This article was originally posted by Medium.]