What's LIHEAP Got to Do with It?
The senate agriculture committee finally finished working on their version of the Farm Bill – the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 – on April 26, and released its contents to the public on May 24. In the current climate of fiscal belt-tightening, cuts in governmental spending were expected, and the Senate did not disappoint – they proposed $23 billion in cuts to Farm Bill funding (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/us/politics/senate-debates-new-farm-bill.html ). As part of this spending reduction, the Senate’s version of the legislation included $4.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This program, which many do not realize is part of the Farm Bill, is designed to help the lowest-income Americans afford nutritious foods. In the last few years, enrollment in SNAP has skyrocketed (increasing nationally by over 75 percent) (FRAC:http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/snapdata2012_march.pdf), reflecting an economic environment that has remained stagnant, with many Americans unemployed or underemployed. In New York City alone, 1 in 5 residents live below the poverty line, and levels of hunger are the highest they’ve ever been since data began to be collected (http://www.nyccah.org/annualreport). In such an economy, cutting funds for social safety net programs would be a bad idea, since it hurts those who most need our help. Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger has said, “The Senate Farm Bill would literally take food out of the mouths of hungry children, working parents, seniors, and veterans.” (http://www.nyccah.org/node/1467) But it is even worse than that.
The cuts to funding would be accomplished by limiting states’ abilities to link benefits from SNAP and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP is a program that is designed to help low-income families that pay heating bills on top of their other housing costs. The New York City mayor’s office recently released a report showing that the average New Yorker pays a third of their income toward rent(ndex.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&catID=1194&doc_name=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nyc.gov%2Fhtml%2Fom%2Fhtml%2F2012a%2Fpr050-12.html&cc=unused1978&rc=1194&ndi=1). However, among the poorest New Yorkers, the burden is even greater; in the Bronx, for instance, a family commonly will pay more than 50% of its income toward housing costs (www.citylimits.org/images_pdfs/pdfs/Weiner.pdf), and rental costs continue to rise. LIHEAP has become essential for many families, enabling them to afford the high cost of living in this city.
In many states (including New York), those who receive LIHEAP funds are enrolled in SNAP at higher levels, to ensure that they do not need to make a choice between eating and heating their homes - for that reason, these state programs are often called 'heat and eat' policies. In order to become eligible for these additional SNAP benefits, beneficiaries must receive a nominal LIHEAP benefit from the state, often as little as $1. As part of the Senate Agriculture Committee's 2012 Farm Bill proposal, the minimum LIHEAP funding threshold that would trigger additional SNAP benefits would be increased to $10. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by increasing this threshold, SNAP expenditures would be cut by about $4.5 billion over the next 10 years (http://frac.org/pdf/snap_liheap_conressvc_may2012.pdf) - but at the cost of reducing benefits to the most needy in New York and other states. In other words, the cuts to SNAP would come almost entirely from reducing benefits to those who need assistance the most – low-income families that pay for heating costs on top of their housing expenses. 500,000 families receiving SNAP benefits would have their benefits reduced by an average of $90 a month. As it stands, the minimum SNAP benefit is just $16 a month (http://frac.org/pdf/snap_cuts_and_heat_and_eat.pdf), an amount many may be left with if this version of the Farm Bill passes. Certainly, this is not enough to survive on, and many disabled and elderly would again face the choice between eating and heating their homes.
On one hand, this method of limiting access to much-needed resources is understandable. It’s easy to sympathize with legislators who find themselves between the rock of financial constraints, and the hard place of political accountability. Cuts to SNAP could be a political win for the senators making these decisions: they can eliminate a budgetary ‘loophole’, shift to cash-strapped state governments the financial burden of providing for disadvantaged citizens, while only hurting the portions of their constituency with the shallowest pockets. However, it is essential for us to let our representatives know that they cannot bolster their careers by taking food from the nation’s poorest.
Boaz Hillebrand is a former professional baker, and a masters’ student at NYU’s Food Studies program. His studies include work on community food security and alternative food systems. In addition, he works with Bon Secours Healthy Communities Initiative to bring healthy foods to communities in the southwest Bronx.