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Federal cuts could affect food assistance for low-income East Texans

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Sept. 15, 2012 at 11 p.m.


A vote by Congress to put government on budget autopilot for six months would postpone a showdown brewing over the 2012 Farm Bill - and whether to slash billions of dollars from the nation's programs to feed low-income families. One of those programs provides nutrition for thousands of East Texans.

The farm bill - a package of federal legislation enacted every five to seven years to set the tone for the nation's farm and food policy - accounts for close to $1 trillion in government spending over 10 years.

Funding for SNAP - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly referred to as food stamps - relies on the largest chunk of the pie at $62.9 billion. It has become the target of a proposed $16 billion cut.

That could have a big impact in Texas, which has the nation's third-highest rate of food insecurity and about 3.5 million people relying on food stamps.

"It would result not only in families losing their benefits, but it would really undermine Texas' efforts to encourage families to save," Celia Cole, chief executive officer of the Texas Food Bank Network, said in late August.

But Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said it was unlikely SNAP recipients would lose benefits.

"The changes we are seeing are mostly administrative," she said of legislation being considered, so it would be unlikely to cause Texans to lose their food assistance. Administrative changes would include some automatic eligibility provisions and the way applications are processed.

"The state (of Texas) tends to be stricter to begin with," Goodman said. "We try to make sure the people who are approved for SNAP are definitely the ones who need it."

Cole said Texas raised the asset limit for those who qualify for SNAP benefits in order to encourage households to save money and work toward long-term solutions to pull their families out of poverty, rather than continuously depending on government aid. If some proposals are approved, she said, Texas would have to revert to federal standards on asset limits, and many state residents would no longer qualify for benefits.

"You could potentially have someone with a $6,000 car get kicked off the program," Cole said.

A federal Office of Management and Budget analysis released in late August found about 302,800 Texans could lose food stamp benefits next year under the cuts. That's about 8.5 percent of Texans enrolled in the program as of June.

Right now, 1.5 million Texas families receive SNAP benefits, for a total of about 3.5 million people, about 1.9 million of whom are younger than 18. The average amount of monthly benefits is $288 per family. In June, the state received $426 million in food stamps.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, said the time to cut SNAP is long overdue.

"We have a tremendous amount of waste, fraud and abuse of the SNAP program," he said. "When you look at it and see that 80 percent of the Farm Bill is food stamps, some work needs to be done there."

He said the program needs to be trimmed not only to save money but to help push money toward people who really need it instead of those who abuse the system and those who are pushed into it because of an "automatic eligibility" provision.

"This proposal would eliminate that automatic eligibility for other programs," Gohmert said. "There are some that meet the eligibility requirements for other programs, but that shouldn't mean they automatically get food stamps."

The nation's financial crisis alone has made Americans aware something has to be done about how SNAP is funded and operated, he said.

"I don't think that having people show they qualify for food stamps is a bad thing when the nation is broke - we are broke," he said.

Gohmert also contends not all SNAP funding supports food assistance, adding that federal incentives have "pushed more people" onto government assistance.

"We don't need to give states bonuses for advertising food stamps," Gohmert said.

But Goodman said Texas is not receiving any money based on the number of people receiving SNAP benefits.

"We receive performance bonuses based on our low error rate and how quickly we process applications," she said. "It didn't have anything to do with the number on SNAP. That money is a reward for doing a good job."

Federal law doesn't put any restrictions on how states use the bonus.

"But our state budget outlines how we can spend it if Texas gets one. It allows us to use those funds for bonuses for the workers who helped earn the bonus, outreach and nutrition education," Goodman said.

School lunch programs are another area of concern as some students' eligibility for free or reduced lunch is tied to their family's SNAP eligibility. A Texas Tribune analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicated 280,000 Texas children could lose their school lunches.

Pine Tree ISD has 4,656 students, with 417 approved for reduced-cost lunch and 2,429 approved for free lunch as of Sept. 5.

Longview ISD has about 8,600 students, with about 7,100 receiving free or reduced lunch.

Karolyn Davis, spokeswoman for East Texas Food Bank, said any cuts to SNAP benefits would directly affect her organization.

"People would be looking for other avenues of food," Davis said.

The food bank provides resources to food pantries across 26 East Texas counties.

"If SNAP funding gets cut, we'll see an increase in need from the food pantries because they are going to see an increase in need from their communities," Davis said.

Struggling families have to prioritize their budgets, and items such as rent, mortgage and car payments are not as flexible as food.

"Unfortunately, the food budget is usually the first to get hit," Davis said.

The food bank provided food for more than 180,000 East Texans in 2010, a 90 percent increase from 2006, according to Feeding America.

"I can't imagine that those numbers are decreasing," Davis said. "Just because the funding gets cut doesn't mean the need goes away."

- This report includes information from News-Journal wire services.

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