House Republicans are proposing significant cuts to the government's food stamp program, amping up the debate over whether the increasingly used program is a magnet for freeloaders or a vital safety net for the poor and unemployed.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is expected to hold a vote soon on a bill calling for $40 billion in cuts over 10 years — or an estimated 5 percent — for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
The cuts are double what House Republicans called for two months ago in a failed "farm bill" that included food stamp funding and subsidies for farmers. After conservatives complained the cuts didn't go far enough — and in an effort to make it easier to advance the less-controversial farmers aid portion of the farm bill — House GOP leaders spun off food stamp funding into a separate bill.
Republicans say their bill will help ensure those receiving government food assistance are truly needy. It calls for tighter eligibility restrictions, such as closing "loopholes" that allow states to offer benefits to some individuals and families above the program's income limits. And it gives states greater flexibility in requiring able-bodied parents to take part in work and job training as a condition for receiving aid.
House GOP leaders have accused the Obama administration of needlessly inflating the food stamp rolls through "unprecedented advertising and recruitment effort to expand the number further," which swelled to a record 47.8 million in December.
In an outline of the House bill drafted by its authors, Republicans complained that some food aid recipients are young, able-bodied adults who refuse to work and who cash in their food stamps for lobster dinners.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates the number of able-bodied adults without children receiving food stamps increased 164 percent from 2007 to 2011, the last year the service compiled data.
"No individual who meets the income and asset guidelines of the [food stamp] program and is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose benefits as a result of these reforms," Cantor said.
But liberal and food assistance groups say the sluggish economy and high unemployment — not fraudsters or those too lazy to find work — are the main reasons for the record high number of Americans receiving food stamps.
The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates if the House GOP bill became law, at least 4 million needy Americans would be kicked of the program's rolls, the vast majority of whom it says legitimately need food aid to avoid falling into significant hardship or poverty.
"The notion that there are two, three, four million jobs available for low-wage low-skill workers and they are avoiding them to take part this in [the food stamp] program is really amazing logic, it's just extraordinary," said Stacy Dean, a food assistance expert with the center. "The program reflects the state of the American economy, which is really struggling right now."
The bill is expected to pass the House along party lines but die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which passed a farm bill containing only $4 billion in food stamp cuts over 10 years. But with its passage, the two chambers finally can meet to hammer out a compromise farm bill, as House GOP leaders have held off negotiations until after the vote on the food stamp bill.
Speculation persists that the food and farm provisions will be melded back together into one bill, as has been tradition since the 1970s. But with such a mammoth funding gap between the House and Senate food stamp proposals, negotiations are sure to be difficult.