House Ag Committee kicks off 'long' review of SNAP

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2014 - House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway said today's committee hearing on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is just “the start of a long” review of the largest initiative in the nation's safety net against hunger.

“This is kind of the first salvo” in the review process, Conaway said after the hearing, at which two experts with different views of the program offered their opinions on how SNAP, which accounts for about 80 percent of USDA's budget, could be improved.

Lets Talk Food

“I have no legislative agenda or timeline” in mind, Conaway said, rejecting any suggestion that Republicans are laying the groundwork to further cut the program's budget. Last year, USDA spent about $76 billion on the program, which each month helped about 46 million low-income Americans feed themselves and their families. The spending bill President Obama signed in February cuts $8.7 billion from SNAP spending over 10 years.

“We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough ties,” the Texas Republican said in his opening statement. “For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table. What we don't want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential. I believe there is a role for SNAP but we need to have a complete and clear understanding of its mission and purpose.”

In his opening, the panel's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he viewed the review as an “opportunity to get past the rhetoric” that has clouded the SNAP issue for years. One issue that he said the committee should examine is why states, which have most administrative responsibilities for the program, have different standards for determining eligibility.

“One of the big problems of the system is that we treat people differently in different parts of the country,” Peterson said. “I just don't think that's right.”

Testifying at Wednesday's hearing were Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, and Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Besharov testified that while SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp program) is viewed by the public mostly as an anti-hunger program, it has evolved into an ”income-supplementation” program with “many unintended and, many believe, negative effects.”

He said these include a disincentive to marry for couples who feel that one or other would end up losing benefits if they were to marry, and possible disincentives to seek work by people who fear losing their SNAP and other federal benefits.

On the other hand, Greenstein, who ran the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service in 1979 and 1980, defended SNAP as one of the federal government's best-run programs.

“Consistent with its original purpose, SNAP continues to provide a basic nutrition benefit to low-income families and people who are elderly or have disabilities and can't afford an adequate diet,” he said.

During questioning, committee Democrats tended to side with Greenstein, warning of the consequences that could follow from further reductions in SNAP spending. Chief among them was Jim McGovern of Massachusetts who said he hoped Conaway's planned hearings would not “turn into another attack against poor people,” adding that “food security is a real problem in this country.”

Republicans, on the other hand, mostly backed Besharov and his call for reforms to the program, including providing more local controls and more effective requirements for beneficiaries to seek work.

The SNAP review continues on Thursday when the Agriculture Committee's nutrition subcommittee, led by Republican Jackie Walorski of Indiana, takes a close look at “SNAP recipient characteristics.”

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