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In our poor state, cutting food stamps is explosive issue

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New Mexico’s U.S. House delegation split along party lines last week on a bill that would slash the federal food stamp budget for poor Americans by $39 billion over the next decade.

Not surprisingly, the two sides put a very different spin on the legislation.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said he voted for the bill because it would “protect funding for the programs struggling New Mexicans rely on.”

The delegation’s House Democrats, who voted against the bill, had a very different view.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan said the bill contains “cuts that are damaging to families across our state and children who are at risk of going to bed hungry.”

In a floor speech before the Thursday evening vote, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the bill would be “disastrous” for New Mexico.

In June, the congresswoman spent a week living on the average weekly food stamp allotment of $31.50. Lujan Grisham pointed out that the program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Act – or SNAP – feeds over 442,000 New Mexicans, or about one in five New Mexicans. Forty-two percent of New Mexico’s kids, or about 215,000 children, receive SNAP benefits.

Feeding America, a national non-profit that battles hunger, found in a study released this summer that New Mexico has the country’s highest percentage of kids who don’t get enough to eat. That tragic statistic should have come as an especially uncomfortable jolt to New Mexico’s leaders.

The House bill passed 217-210 Thursday with 15 Republicans voting against it and no Democrats voting for it. A Senate bill passed in May would cut about $4.5 billion from the SNAP program over the next decade, largely by changing eligibility requirements. The two chambers are headed for a showdown on this politically and emotionally explosive issue.

One of the biggest cuts in the bill the House approved Thursday would come by way of new limits for healthy adults ages 18 to 50 who don’t have kids. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported 1.7 million of these people would lose benefits next year under the House bill.

The bill would also give states more flexibility in administering the program and would allow for drug testing of SNAP benefit recipients. These initiatives would reduce bloat and – no pun intended – weed out people who are taking advantage of the program, Pearce argued.

SNAP spending has roughly doubled during the Obama administration to almost $80 billion annually, a fact that does seem to warrant some close scrutiny of the program.

“Today’s bill contains commonsense reforms to improve our nutrition assistance programs,” Pearce said in a news release explaining his vote. “Included is language that brings assistance programs in line with 1996 welfare reform that mandated work requirements, so that able-bodied people are able to get back on their feet and help themselves, while funding remains in place to assist those who are unable to work. And, the bill contains precise and effective reforms to combat fraud and abuse within the program, while ensuring that the Americans who have fallen on hard times get the support they rely on.”

Sheldon Danzinger, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, writing in the Washington Post, said the drug testing provision would just complicate things for states and potentially hurt innocent kids.

“No doubt, we’ll deter some people from applying who more seriously misuse alcohol or illicit drugs,” Danzinger wrote. “Even in such cases, it’s not so obvious that this is the right thing to do. After all, if a poor single mom smokes too much pot, her kids still need their food money. A better policy would focus more narrowly and specifically on public aid recipients who have identifiable difficulties linked with drug or alcohol misuse. One could then offer the kind of screening, assessment, and services that are actually likely to help.”

As my colleague Elaine Tassey pointed out in an enlightening Journal article earlier this month, almost everyone in New Mexico who receives monthly food help from SNAP will see their benefits cut anyway – not from the pending House bill but because a piece of the stimulus package that boosted SNAP spending expires soon.

The end of the stimulus boost on Oct. 31 means a family of three receiving the maximum benefit of $526 a month will get $29 a month less, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees SNAP.

It’s all food for thought, even for those of us who never have to worry where our next meal is coming from.

E-mail: mcoleman@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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