With Poverty Still Well Above Pre-Recession Levels, House Moves to Cut Critical Poverty-Fighting Program

Census data released Tuesday show that SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known in California as CalFresh) lifted 4 million people nationwide above the federal poverty line in 2012.

Because SNAP benefits don’t come in the form of cash, they are not counted as income in the official poverty measure. However, the Census Bureau provides information on how much the official poverty statistics would change if these additional resources were counted as income. In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, SNAP lifted more people out of poverty than in any other year on record.

Despite strong evidence of SNAP’s effectiveness at alleviating the worst effects of poverty and reducing hunger, the US House of Representatives is preparing to vote today on a bill that would slash funding for the program by $39 billion — 10 times the size of the SNAP cuts in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill.

The new legislation, HR 3102, doubles down on cuts previously proposed by the House, in an earlier June version of the Farm Bill that failed to pass. After that attempt failed, the House passed a Farm Bill that left out the nutrition provisions altogether. HR 3102 is a new attempt to pass the nutrition provisions separately, keeping all the cuts to SNAP previously proposed, and adding more to the list.

For example, the new bill would block states’ flexibility to exempt high-unemployment areas from strict rules that limit benefits for jobless adults with no children. While proponents of the bill claim that any qualifying person willing to work or participate in a job training program will still have access to SNAP, most states and localities provide limited, if any, access to “workfare” programs. If state flexibility were eliminated, childless adults unable to find a job or get a spot in a job training program would only be able to receive benefits for three months in any three-year period — even in areas with the highest unemployment. Given that more than half of all California counties are still experiencing double-digit unemployment, this provision is cause for concern.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that HR 3102 would eliminate SNAP benefits for about 3.8 million people — including seniors and low-income working families with children — in 2014. In addition, nearly 3 million people per year over the next 10 years would lose benefits. These cuts are on top of already-scheduled benefit reductions that will affect all SNAP households in a little over a month.

With poverty in California still stubbornly high — about one-third above the pre-recession level — deep cuts to SNAP/CalFresh would come at a terrible time, limiting one of the most effective tools the state has for fighting poverty. In order for low-income families to begin to see the gains that high-income earners have seen during the recovery, we need to strengthen and preserve the safety net for struggling families — not weaken it.

— Hope Richardson