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Food stamp eligibility on House Ag Committee radar

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee Chairman Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, signaled today that they intend to take a close look at tightening up on eligibility for food stamps, now known formally as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP.

At a subcommittee hearing on the federal nutrition programs, Lucas said “there is still room for improvement” in the integrity of SNAP. Lucas noted that the Agriculture Department allows states to use a system called Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility, which makes most — if not all — households categorically eligible for SNAP if they receive any non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit.

Of the 42 states that have adopted broad-based categorical eligibility, only one has imposed a limit on the assets that a household can hold and still receive nutrition assistance.

“Categorical eligibility is meant to simplify program administration, but I know that it also raises some questions about whether we are really targeting families most in need,” Lucas said in an opening statement. “Certainly we shouldn’t be sacrificing the integrity of this program for ease of administration.”

“We all need to eat, and when families fall on hard times, SNAP is a valuable resource that helps ensure no one goes hungry,” Lucas continued. “But in the current economic environment we need to ensure that SNAP benefits are going to those families that truly need support. I’m concerned that broad-based categorical eligibility increases opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Lucas added, “It won’t be easy, but we need to find savings throughout farm bill programs.”

Schmidt noted that nutrition programs now make up 75 percent of the Agriculture Department budget, that participation in the SNAP program has risen from 26 million people in 2007 to more than 44 million people in April — a nearly 70 percent increase — and that the cost of the program doubled from $33 billion in fiscal year 2007 to $69 billion in 2011.

“This dramatic growth in SNAP participation and cost has strained our resources. Given our current budget situation, we have a responsibility to examine whether we can reduce the funding without compromising the integrity of the SNAP program,” Schmidt said.

The broad-based categorical eligibility system has been one of the ways that the Agriculture Department has attempted to increase participation of eligible people in the SNAP program.

In testimony, Audrey Rowe, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service noted that participation of eligibles has risen from 57 percent to 66 percent while the payment error rate has gone from 8.91 percent to a record low of 3.81 percent. Rowe also noted that about half of all SNAP clients are children, that three quarters of benefits go to households with at least one child, and that nearly one third of participating households include elderly people or people with disabilities.

Tightening up the eligibility requirements is likely to generate vigorous opposition, however. The Gang of Six budget proposal in the Senate protects SNAP from cuts.

House Agriculture Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee ranking member Joe Baca, D-Calif., said today that the federal nutrition programs “are the primary safety net between hunger and health for millions of Americans.”

“Today’s hearing was an important opportunity to explore the current effectiveness and efficiency of these programs,” Baca said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the upcoming farm bill to ensure adequate nutrition continues to be available to the neediest Americans, including our seniors and underserved populations, in the most efficient manner possible.”