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Food Stamp Issue Derails Farm Bill as Recipients at Record High

Siemond Chan
Siemond Chan
The Exchange
Yahoo Newsroom

Last week's dramatic defeat of the farm bill in the House put a fresh emphasis on the issue of food stamps in the U.S., just as the number of recipients for the program sits at a record high.

The 195-234 vote against the $500 billion farm policy bill, a version of which the Senate passed earlier this month, came amid congressional disagreements regarding cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Keen focus was placed on an amendment put forth by Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, which required beneficiaries to sign up for employment-training programs in order to continue receiving food stamps. Many Democrats, who may have been willing to OK the $20 billion in food-stamp cuts the House version included, balked at the amendment, and only 24 ultimately voted for passage of the bill. Another dysfunctional-family blame game between the GOP and Democrats ensued as the defeat provided a serious blow to House Speaker John Boehner.

What will happen next with the farm bill, which has been operating under rolling extensions since the the old bill's 2008 expiration, remains to be seen. But its failure to thrive in the face of the food-stamp fight comes as the number of U.S. citizens receiving this benefit, at 47.7 million as of March of this year, exceeds the entire population of Spain, the sixth-most-populous country in the European Union.

Enrollment in SNAP has soared by 70% in the past five years; the U.S. shelled out a record $74.6 billion on the program in 2012, more than double what was spent in 2008, when the financial crisis hit in full force toward the end of the year. The U.S. officially exited the Great Recession, which began in 2007, in June of 2009. Since then, the economy has experienced a slowly churning recovery — with plenty of hiccups — marked by an increase in payroll levels, a slow-and-steady housing comeback and a massive pop in equities that's been at least partially fueled by unprecedented monetary stimulus.

But amid the recovery, the U.S. has also seen an increase in poverty levels, which the Census Bureau puts at 15.9% of the total population, or close to 50 million citizens. The Census Bureau puts close to 50 million Americans, or 15.9% of the total population, at or below the poverty level. In 2008, that figure was 13.2% of the population. And, while the unemployment rate has fallen from 10% at its Great Recession peak in 2009 to 7.6% in May, 11.8 million Americans still remain without work; 4.4 million comprise the long-term unemployed.

Along with a push from many states to encourage more eligible people to apply for the federally funded SNAP program, the rise in food-stamp recipients can also be traced to rules with roots in former President Bill Clinton's sweeping 1996 welfare overhaul. The rules allow for a slight relaxing in the income and asset tests for eligible food stamp recipients, meaning they can apply for such benefits before they wipe out all their savings and need even more assistance. The Obama administration encouraged states to ease these rules during the financial crisis, in an attempt to stem rising poverty rates in a critical economic hardship environment. So while the gross monthly income for an eligible household (with three members) must generally be at or below 130% of the poverty line (around $23,800 annually), and assets must typically not go above $3,250, exceptions can be made. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article interviewed a SNAP recipient who had more than $5,000 in savings but was still eligible for the program.

As the article points out, the relaxed rules are "one reason why SNAP appears to have evolved from a program that rose and fell with the unemployment rate to a more permanent feature of the landscape."

Almost 75% of of SNAP beneficiaries are families with one or more child; more than one-quarter of homes that receive food stamps include senior citizens or people with disabilities. The typical SNAP recipient received about $133.41 in benefits per month in fiscal year 2012. -- Rebecca Stropoli