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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 21, 2013

Food stamp cuts would deny aid to millions and deny school lunch aid to thousands, says Barbara Lee

When the House of Representatives voted down the 2013 food bill, cuts in the food stamp program played a central role.

The bill as a whole aimed to reduce spending by about $40 billion, with about half of the total coming from a range of nutrition programs. Democrats vigorously opposed the plan. "The price of a farm bill should not be making more people hungry in America," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., during Thursday’s debate.

One claim about what the cuts would do to families came earlier in the week from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. In an interview on MSNBC, Lee said the cuts would mean "2 million less people on food stamps. 210,000 children will not receive school lunches or breakfasts."

Judging by the House vote, 234 opposed versus 195 in favor, that sort of argument was persuasive, although some of the opposition also came from conservatives who thought the farm bill as a whole was too expensive. We thought the claim about the impact on families would bear a closer look.

Lee’s office pointed us to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that generally favors government aid to society’s less fortunate members. That report highlighted a couple of key changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps. Among the most significant, the House measure would eliminate something called "categorical eligibility."  

Categorical eligibility allows states to use one set of criteria for its welfare programs, a move that reduces red tape but also has the effect of granting food stamps to people with incomes or assets slightly above the federal cutoff.

The CBPP report cited a 2012 Congressional Budget Office study that said getting rid of categorical eligibility would reduce the program rolls by about 1.8 million people. (About 47.7 million people are currently in the program.) The CBO is the nonpartisan policy arm of Congress. Its analysts also wrote that the change would likely "increase the time required to verify information on SNAP applications, which would probably result in more errors and greater administrative costs."

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Analysts who think Congress ought to do away with categorical eligibility don’t challenge the CBO numbers. Rachel Sheffield with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, opposes a broad approach to eligibility, as well as a measure called Heat and Eat, which allows states to make what she says are unrealistic allowances for a family’s utility bills.

"Loopholes like broad-based categorical eligibility and Heat & Eat have allowed the rolls to swell and should be eliminated," Sheffield said.

But that is a matter of policy, not the numbers in the CBO estimate. Sheffield agrees that the number of SNAP participants would decline and in her view, that would be better.

In some states, there is a direct connection between food stamps, which go to a household, and free and reduced-price school meals, which go to the children. Basically, in those states, if a family gets food stamps, the children automatically qualify for a break on the price of breakfast and lunch at school.

In an analysis of the latest bill, the CBO estimated that reducing the food stamp rolls would mean that about 210,000 children would lose automatic eligibility for the school meals program. However, they might still qualify; they would need to apply separately. So to say that all 210,000 would no longer be able to participate goes beyond the CBO analysis.

Our ruling

Lee said that cuts in the House farm bill would leave 2 million people without food stamps and remove 210,000 children from the school breakfast and lunch program. Ultimately, both numbers go back to the Congressional Budget Office, which is generally seen as impartial. The CBO analysis largely supports the food stamp rolls reduction, but there is more uncertainty regarding school meal subsidies. She is off a little bit on the 2 million number; it's actually 1.8 million. And, with school lunches, it's uncertain that all 210,000 would no longer qualify. It's possible some might still be able to receive free or reduced cost lunches by applying separately. We rate the statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, Interview with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., June 17, 2013

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "House Agriculture Committee farm bill would cut nearly 2 million people off SNAP", May 16, 2013

Email interview with Carrie Adams, communications director for Rep. Barbara Lee

House Committee on Agriculture, Farm Bill information page

Congressional Budget Office, "Estimated budgetary effects relative to the current-law baseline", May 13, 2013

Congressional Budget Office, The supplemental nutrition assistance program, April 2012

Congressional Budget Office, Agricultural Reconciliation Act of 2012, April 23, 2012

Department of Agriculture, SNAP current participation, June 7, 2013

Interview with Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 20, 2013

House Committee on Agriculture, Hearing testimony of Rodney Bivens, Executive Director, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, May 8, 2012

House Committee on Agriculture, Hearing testimony of Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow Economic Studies Program, the Brookings Institution, May 8, 2012

House Committee on Agriculture, Hearing testimony of Stacy Dean, Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 8, 2012

Email interview with Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst, Heritage Foundation, June 21, 2013

Heritage Foundation, "Reforming the food stamp program", July 25, 2012

Heritage Foundation, "Farm bill barely nibbles at food stamps", June 18, 2013

New York Times, "House defeats a farm bill with big food stamp cuts", June 20, 2013

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Food stamp cuts would deny aid to millions and deny school lunch aid to thousands, says Barbara Lee

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