In February, following a bitter fight that lasted four years, Congress passed a nearly $1 trillion farm bill that was designed to eliminate more than $8.6 billion from the federal food stamp program over the next decade. Republicans eager to spend less to feed the poor saw it as a win because it did just that. Democrats hailed it as a victory because it was only a fraction of the $40 billion in food stamp cuts Republicans had wanted.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers who brokered the deal promised that those savings would come from closing what they branded a “loophole”—namely, a provision that allowed cold-weather states to pay out a nominal amount in heating assistance to needy residents in order to boost the total amount of food stamps they received from the federal government. But in the five months since, something has happened that neither the lawmakers who wrote the law nor the anti-poverty crusaders who fought them anticipated: At least seven of the 15 states in question are taking steps to ensure the “heat and eat” cuts don’t happen, and the remaining eight have suggested they may do the same, according to a recent tally by Pew’s Stateline.
House Republicans have responded by promising to take action. “Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters in March. “And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and fraud from continuing.” Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee, has proposed ending the practice all together by eliminating the entire provision in the next budget. On Thursday, Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Agriculture Committee’s oversight panel, likewise decried what the states were doing as “abuse” and suggested his committee would address it as soon as possible.
But public health experts and anti-poverty advocates warn that what’s being lost in the GOP’s latest push to rewrite the law—and what was largely missing from the original debate all together—is that this so-called loophole is anything but. “By calling it that they’re suggesting that someone’s trying to get away with something—it’s almost a criminal accusation,” says Mariana Chilton, an associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. “That’s the kind of language people use when they don’t understand the hardship that these families are experiencing every day.” Instead of a loophole, Chilton and other experts say the “heat and eat” provision was designed to acknowledge that the current formulas that set food stamp benefits don’t take into account true housing costs. The provision isn’t a policy mistake, they say; it gives families more money for food, allowing them to spend more of their budget on heat.
In its original form, “heat and eat” gave participating states the ability to boost the amount of food stamps a family received by giving a needy household as little as $1 a year in home-heating assistance. That heating subsidy, in turn, meant the family would qualify for an average of $90 in extra food stamps each month. It was designed to account for the fact that families in states with higher energy costs often find themselves in an untenable position during the winter as they are forced to decide whether to turn on the heat or keep food on the table. (Pediatricians spotted the danger years ago, dubbing the issue the “heat or eat” syndrome.) Families that chose to eat, the research suggests, will often attempt to heat their homes with their stoves, raising the risk of fire while still failing to keep their children warm, which increases the odds they’ll eventually be hospitalized for upper respiratory infections and other preventable illnesses.
Believing states wouldn’t be willing to pony up extra cash to keep the families receiving the extra food stamps, lawmakers branded that $1 subsidy a gimmick and used the farm bill to raise the qualifying threshold to $20 a year. It turns out they were wrong—something anti-poverty advocates now say simply proves their original point that lawmakers were never dealing with a loophole in the first place.
According to Greg Kauffman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the state officials boosting assistance to the families in need are closer to the ground than lawmakers in Washington, and have a much better idea of just how dire the situation is for food stamp recipients, who currently receive an average of $1.40 per meal.* “So when the state administrators say, ‘No, we can’t take away something that was smart policy,’ it kind of disproves that this was some sort of technocratic gimmick as some portrayed it to be,” says Kauffman.
States, of course, have a clear incentive to keep the “heat and eat” benefits coming. In Vermont, where more than 19,000 households receive the benefits, meeting the new threshold will cost the state an extra $400,000. That total, however, will mean $15 million more in food stamps for those families. It’s the same story in New York, where the state plans to raise home-heat spending by $6 million in order to keep 300,000 households receiving the extra benefits. When you factor in the additional economic activity created by each food stamp dollar, that $6 million investment would mean a return of $786 million for the state’s economy.
Exactly what the GOP will do next remains to be seen. Senate Democrats had originally set the threshold at $10 in their own version of the bill before ultimately agreeing to raise it to the House-passed $20 figure.* One likely line of attack would be to raise that figure further in hopes of finding the point where states will be either unwilling or unable to pay to keep the federal aid coming. But if Democrats are willing to entertain such suggestions, critics warn, they’ll be making the same mistake they did the first time around when they let conservatives begin tampering with the program. “They fell right into their little trap by allowing Republicans to use the loophole language [and label it] fraud, waste, and abuse,” says Chilton. “It was just a political strategy to cut the program—and now they’re stuck dealing with an imaginary football.”
Correction, July 29, 2014: This article originally misstated that the version of the farm bill passed by the House called for the elimination of the “heat and eat” provision altogether. The bill set the qualifying threshold at $20. (Return.) It also misidentified the Center for American Progress as the Center of American Progress. (Return.)