BOSTON — Massachusetts joined several other states Tuesday in moving to preserve food assistance benefits for households that would otherwise be reduced under a recently approved federal farm bill.
The actions by the states recently prompted U.S. House Speaker John Boehner to accuse state officials of circumventing the intent of Congress.
Under the plan announced by Gov. Deval Patrick, the state will provide at least $20 in heating assistance to about 163,000 eligible families, which in turn will make those families eligible for an additional $80 a month in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — formerly known as Food Stamps.
Administration officials said the move would prevent a loss of $142 million in SNAP benefits.
"Reversing the cuts from the farm bill is a major step in helping Massachusetts families work toward economic stability," John Polanowicz, state secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.
The farm bill cut the food stamp program by ending some state practices that give recipients minimal heating assistance — as low as $1 per person — to trigger higher SNAP benefits under the so-called "Heat and Eat" program. Compromise language required states to give recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.
The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program will use federal funding to provide the $3 million needed to increase the benefit, according to a spokesman for the agency.
Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Montana also have approved higher heating assistance to offset the cut in food stamps.
"Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps," Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters last month.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, issued a statement Tuesday rebuking Boehner while praising the Patrick administration for maintaining the benefit level.
"Despite what Speaker Boehner said last week (ironically, on the same day he invited Pope Francis to address a joint session of Congress), this effort is not 'fraud' or 'cheating' — it's an effort by states like Massachusetts to provide food to hungry families," McGovern said.