GOP targeting SNAP, summer food benefits

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - USDA officials fielded tough questions from a philosophically split House Ag Appropriations panel Wednesday on the president's new summer feeding program, which is projected to cost billions of dollars, and drug testing for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

President Barack Obama's proposed fiscal 2017 USDA budget totals $111.9 billion for nutrition programs - about $2 billion more than 2016's enacted level. One reason why the proposed budget is bigger is due to the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program, also known as Summer EBT, which would feed children in low-income families during the summer months when free or reduced priced school meals are not available. The program is currently being piloted in a few states.

Lets Talk Food

Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said in his opening statement that “to expand this program to the tune of $12 billion over 10 years is simply not feasible in this budget climate.”

Under the president's Summer EBT proposal, households with eligible children would receive $45 a month per child during the summer months for use at grocery stores. In the summer of 2017, USDA estimates almost one million children will have summer EBT benefits. By 2026, once all 50 states are offering the program and the $12.2 billion spent, USDA says 20 million low-income children will be receiving benefits. Currently, about 22 million children receive free and reduced priced meals through the National School Lunch Program during the school year.

The 2017 budget also includes a $10 million line item for providing summer meals to children that they can pick up and eat off site. USDA says the pilot will help determine whether this method of “non-congregate feeding” is effective at reaching hungry children that aren't able travel to existing congregate sites, which are often schools and other community centers.

One way to curb spending, Republicans say, would be to halt SNAP benefits to drug users.

Obama's budget requested about $88 billion for SNAP - enough to serve an average of 44.5 million people each month in fiscal 2017, which is about one million people fewer than estimated for fiscal 2016.

Aderholt has maintained that if a welfare recipient can afford drugs “then they have the money to buy food. The federal government should not be enabling people to fund their drug addiction at taxpayer expense.”

Aderholt recently introduced a bill - H.R. 4540 - that would allow states to drug test SNAP participants and revoke SNAP eligibility based on the results. States would have access to $600 million in federal funds, appropriated annually from 2017 to 2021, for drug rehabilitation programs for SNAP participants but would not be obligated to use those funds.

The bill “has a compassionate tone to it that says if these folks truly have some kind of drug addiction then they need to get some help,” he said. “If they go through a treatment program, they would still be eligible, (or) at least that's how I would like to see the states set it up.”

Aderholt acknowledged at the hearing that some SNAP participants may elect to discontinue food assistance in lieu of being drug tested, but suggested it would be because they were using drugs themselves.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said to the USDA panel of witnesses he'd “rather they be eating through your program, than robbing for food.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said her piece, too, after asking the room why drug testing should be required for SNAP recipients and not for farmers who collect federal crop insurance subsidies.

“If we're going to look at drug testing for SNAP, we should take the entire Department of Agriculture and all those programs that provide federal subsidy to folks, and they ought to be drug tested as well,” she said.

She also referenced a four-month experiment in Florida during 2011 where recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program were drug tested. If they passed the test, they were allowed to continue receiving benefits and were refunded what they paid to be tested.

The state ended up paying more than $118,000 for the drug tests, DeLauro said, more than what would have been paid out in food benefits to the people who failed the test. Of the 4,086 people tested, 108, 2.6 percent, were found to be using narcotics. Two federal courts invalidated the 2011 law on the grounds of unconstitutional search and seizure.

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Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, was also staunch in his opinion that drug testing SNAP users is a bad idea. When drug testing has been used as an eligibility requirement for TANF in the past, it has shown that “a very small percentage” of recipients were using drugs, he said. Plus, testing is “a very expensive process.”

Creating another condition of eligibility for SNAP would complicate and slow the distribution of SNAP benefits, too, he said, and ultimately ignores a dire, but separate need: “an adequate treatment base” for substance abusers.

Concannon said that current USDA regulations allow TANF participants to be drug tested, as well as convicted drug felons in the SNAP program. He also noted that those same regulations prohibit making drug testing a condition for eligibility in the general SNAP population.

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