Politics & Law

Closing loopholes or eroding rights? The politics of food stamps and ‘heat and eat’

Miranda Everitt

By Miranda Everitt and Philip Rocco — Read enough political journalism and you will likely be persuaded of a simple truth: public policy exists to serve economic ends. We grant tax deductions to encourage home ownership; we extend unemployment insurance to support consumer spending during a crisis. But there is more to public policy than the search for efficient outcomes. Policies often confer social rights — powerful markers of status in society, entrenched in law and defended by courts.

As British sociologist T.H. Marshall put it in his 1950 lecture on “Citizenship and Social Class,” social rights give citizens the ability to “live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.” As Shep Melnick points out, individual rights to government benefits evolved slowly, through statutes and jurisprudence. Once established, it can be difficult to roll these rights back, but that doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying.

Elements of the Farm Bill

farmEvery five years (more or less), Congress passes a massive Farm Bill that sets agriculture, trade, energy and nutrition policies for the nation. About 80 percent of the spending in the bill is on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known more commonly as food stamps. The bill that cleared the Senate yesterday and will be sent to President Obama’s desk contains $8.7 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years.

While most anti-poverty programs have spending caps (like housing assistance, child care and cash aid), SNAP is an entitlement program (like Medicare and Social Security). That means that anyone who is eligible for benefits  —  defined by a complicated mix of income, expenses, family size and a few other factors determined by states  —  can apply and receive them. SNAP spending grows and shrinks in response to need, not political priorities.

GOP reformers have perennially proposed making SNAP a block grant to states, capping benefit levels without regard to natural disaster or swings in the economy. When block-granting proved a nonstarter in the most recent Farm Bill, “closing loopholes” became the budget-cutter’s battle cry.

The $8.7 billion in “savings” comes through restricting “heat and eat” provisions now used by 15 states, including California. Under current eligibility rules, households with high housing and utility costs receive a larger SNAP benefit. The federal poverty level ($19,530 for a family of three!) does not take very different costs of living into account — and spending more on rent and heat means having less money left over for food.

Because heating and cooling bills fluctuate, tracking those costs precisely and continually adjusting benefits is the definition of administrative inefficiency. Instead, many states use a standard amount, which reflects the typical low-income household’s utility bill, to determine the household SNAP benefit.

To simplify things even further (for caseworkers, though not for you, dear reader!), states will use that standard allowance for any household receiving Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds. In “heat and eat” states, many families who can’t produce a separate heating bill (like renters) receive as little as $1 via LIHEAP, which immediately qualifies them for the standard allowance, in turn boosting their SNAP benefits by up to $90 per month.

For states, this kind of coordination — entirely legal under current federal statutes — makes perfect sense. SNAP benefits are paid for entirely by the federal government, while states foot the bill for more than half of administration costs. It’s rational for them to want to decrease overhead while bringing in more federal benefits to stimulate local economies.

Meanwhile, LIHEAP, a block grant, never goes far enough. To get the most bang for their buck, states can offer a small LIHEAP benefit to families. Using just a little of the limited pot of LIHEAP funding helps states lower administrative costs and get more federal dollars for their residents. Though it seems complicated, all of this gives state administrators the flexibility they need to navigate a complex set of requirements.

… Or, you might call it a loophole.

The rhetorical uses of the  ‘loophole’

The characterization began in Heritage Foundation briefs, and is now common in news outlets such as NPR’s Planet Money, Washington Post, Bloomberg News, USAToday and CBS News.

first food stamp, 1939

First U.S. surplus-food stamp, issued in 1939. (Harris & Ewing, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons)

Why do reformers insist on calling program coordination a “loophole”? In short, because it helps them tarnish SNAP’s good reputation for efficiency and low error rates. By claiming that SNAP is filled with loopholes and illegitimate behavior, opponents are gradually chipping away at the idea that SNAP merits entitlement status.

The seeds of this rhetorical strategy were planted in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more commonly known as “welfare reform.” Welfare reform, which destroyed the program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had two crucial effects on the discourse of poverty policy.

First, proponents of welfare reform, Republicans and Democrats alike, used the images of “welfare mothers” living on “handouts” to eliminate the entitlement status of AFDC. In doing so, they publicly advocated the idea that no benefit programs were rights.

Though this argument failed when Republicans tried to block grant SNAP in 1995, it has not gone away. Since 1996, opponents of government spending on poverty have used the welfare-reform playbook on SNAP, with perennial attempts to strip the program of its entitlement status by turning it into a block grant.

At a recent Heritage Foundation forum, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–WI) called SNAP “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” In his 2012 budget proposal, Ryan combined the elimination of SNAP’s entitlement status with ending “heat and eat” by suggesting that state governments were abusing an unnecessary program.

Second, welfare reform further delegitimized the poor as seekers of social rights. Since the mid-1990s, state-level welfare-to-work programs have required that benefit-seekers modify their behaviors in order to qualify for payments and for job-training programs.

Anti-poverty programs now come with exorbitant policing of beneficiaries’ behaviors, including drug-testing, fingerprinting, and questions regarding sexual relations. Nothing else we consider a right comes with this posture of mistrust (except, increasingly, the franchise).

Blaming the poor

By practicing these organizational routines daily, caseworkers (and ultimately the public) have come to blame poverty on the poor and to characterize benefit-seeking as “looking for handouts” and exploiting loopholes in programs. Recently, opponents of SNAP have spoken about closing the “heat and eat loophole” in the same breath as other punitive measures such as banning felons from food stamps for life, and making enrollment contingent on a drug test.

town covered in snow

The new farm bill targets the heat-and-eat “loophole” for elimination. (John2165 via Wikimedia Commons)

Targeting the heat-and-eat “loophole” for elimination, as this Farm Bill does, might serve the political goals of SNAP’s opponents, but it makes little sense as public policy. States using “heat and eat” recognize that hunger in America is no natural disaster or act of God – it’s the result of painful trade-offs made by 1 in 7 Americans: between food and shelter, food and medicine, or food and heat.

Eligibility standards for LIHEAP and for SNAP are quite similar —  “heat and eat” was developed in response to families reporting making the choice to heat or eat. Poor children consume fewer calories in winter. Nearly half of food-pantry client households report having to choose between food and utility bills (and that’s after they’ve taken home extra food from charities). Not to mention nutrition experts’ (and beneficiaries!) finding that SNAP benefit levels are already insufficient – 90% of households spend every penny before the end of the month, and more than half spend it all by week two.

Three touchpoints

Though some poverty experts have criticized states’ usage of these provisions, it’s important to keep three facts in mind when analyzing the current Farm Bill.

First, and most importantly, many state governments are increasingly incapable of generating the revenue needed to keep up with the administration costs of federal programs, making workarounds an essential part of flexible, adaptive governance. Second, Congress is chipping away at SNAP while tax expenditures like the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, a quasi-right that costs roughly as much and disproportionately benefits the wealthy, are safe from the budget-cutters.

Finally, while we might prefer an across-the-board increase in food-stamp benefit levels rather than allowing states to use a “loophole”; Congress is unlikely to agree. In a time of decreasing public commitments to anti-poverty programs, ending the practice of heat-and-eat deals a serious blow to impoverished citizens that the Obama administration has committed to assist.

But perhaps most importantly, the Farm Bill the Senate passed yesterday unfairly makes a dent in a well-functioning program that confers a meaningful social right: to eat. We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is bleak for the most vulnerable among us.

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Comments to "Closing loopholes or eroding rights? The politics of food stamps and ‘heat and eat’":
    • deborah

      Hi, this piece is great for sure but I find the Heat and Eat program troubling as it only serves roughly one third of the states. I help people apply for Food Stamps as my job in one of the non-Heat and Eat states, and I find it unfair that SNAP recipients in, say, Massachusetts could get a $608 Standard Utilty Deduction while not actually paying separate utility bills.

      Meanwhile in my state, no such program exists and if a client’s utility bills are not separate from rent then they don’t get a Standard Utility Deduction.

      How do you feel about this? I am, of course, pro-SNAP, but I want to hear other opinions on the program. Thanks!

      [Report abuse]

    • john binham

      An important issue, SNAP spending also provides a direct subsidy for farmers. The excess food they produce would be wasted if the poor did not have the means to buy it.

      Produce was readily destroyed during the Great Depression as a “solution” and means to increase food prices and supposedly aid farmers. SNAP seems to be more reasonable approach to providing aid and subsidy to farmers as a means to grow our food supply while at the same time provide assistance to those in need.

      Not sure why there is so much opposition to such a worthy program whereby society, farmers and those in need are all clear winners.

      [Report abuse]

    • Teri W.

      A very helpful piece, with one potentially-important exception:

      SNAP is most certainly not “an entitlement program like Medicare and Social Security.” SNAP is a need-based assistance program that actually or potentially fluctuates with political whim, like SSI and General Assistance. You get Medicare and SS whether you need them or not; you’re “entitled” to them.

      For your next piece. please research the mis-characterizing broadening of the word “entitlement” in what passes for the nation’s political discourse. I think you’ll find it’s all of a piece — the Ayn Rand-ian, Social Darwinist war on the poor, disabled, seniors, and working class, as well as (thinly-veiled) against people of color, and immigrants of all descriptions (especially Of Color).

      British law theory books are all but irrelevant in today’s United States… especially if Faux News and talk radio find out you’re from Berkeley and you’re consulting British and international law!!!

      Here, all other rights went out the window between Dartmouth and Citizens United, when the corrupt Supreme Court traded (relative) democracy and Sovereignty for the scraps falling from the tables of the rich and corporate boardrooms and executive suites. Anything for the rest of us is, as we’re seeing, a tenuous, temporary concession from them.

      This country has no organized Left to speak of, but you know EXACTLY what our “masters” fear each time they try to wave the Red flag (laughably) at Democrats…!

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      The new political reality in America appears to be the end of the dream of equal rights and opportunities for all. Washington is taking Maslow’s physiological and safety stages to new lows by legislating another depression.

      Indeed, the “ending is bleak for the most vulnerable among us,” a lesson in history Solon tried to prevent that Washington has forgotten again.

      [Report abuse]

    • the walrus

      Thank you for such a clear analysis of a bill that is beyond reason. There is not enough work that pays a livable wage to accommodate everyone who needs a job. Responsible people are not able to support families without the jobs they are seeking. Cold and hungry children can’t learn. So… in a record cold winter, we cut back on food and heat assistance. I cannot see any reason for it.

      Sen. Ryan should try living on a Walmart salary or finding better paying employment. It might open his mind.I hope President Obama will veto this Farm Bill. It is a bad piece of legislation.

      [Report abuse]

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