Advocates decry House farm bill’s cuts to food stamps

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 23, 2018, by Sarah Robertson

In response to the farm bill passed by the U.S. House on Thursday, area politicians and social welfare organizations are worried the proposed cuts could come at the expense of the state’s most vulnerable communities.

The bill would cut more than $20 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, according to a press release from the office of Congressman James McGovern. The $867 billion bill passed by just two votes, 213-211, and includes a controversial work requirement favored by President Trump.

If passed by the Senate, the bill could slash nutritional assistance for millions of people, McGovern’s office said, and increase poverty and hunger nationwide. In Massachusetts, one in every nine people receives SNAP benefits, 72 percent of whom earn less than the federal poverty limit, just $24,300 for a household of four.

“This is a sad day for struggling Americans trying to put food on their tables,” McGovern said in a statement. “After months of demonizing the poor and trading in disgusting stereotypes, this Republican House finally mustered the votes to pass this partisan Farm Bill.”

Local organizations working on issues of food security fear these cuts will come at the expense of vulnerable populations like children, families, disabled, elderly and chronically homeless people. In western Massachusetts there are currently 147,871 people receiving SNAP benefits, according to data from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, of a total 829,794 residents in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

“It’s clear that what the House passed is a cruel and terrible bill in terms of what it would do by cutting SNAP benefits and tightening up work requirements,” said Laura Sylvester, the legislative and community partnership coordinator for the Food Bank.

Sylvester said she is careful to avoid fearmongering, however, as the Senate version of the farm bill makes no cuts to SNAP, a compromise is yet to be negotiated, and 60 senators have already agreed to vote in favor of their bill as is.

“They are very different and we think that it will be hard for them to reconcile the two versions,” Sylvester said. “The House Freedom Caucus will never agree to the more moderate Senate version, and the Democrats in the House are not going to allow the House version to go through.”

McGovern also noted that it was the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of about 30 House members that advocates for limited government, that pushed the bill through the House.

“Republican leaders had to buy off the Freedom Caucus’ support by killing the bipartisan immigration discharge petition earlier today to make passage possible,” McGovern said. “This bill does nothing to actually strengthen agriculture programs or help farmers caught in the president’s trade war.”

The politicization of food assistance programs is frustrating to longtime social welfare workers who already see persistent hunger in the communities they serve.

“This is a wealthy country and people should not be hungry,” said Claire Higgins, executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Pioneer Valley and former mayor of Northampton.

Any reductive changes to SNAP can send significantly more people to Community Action’s food bank seeking assistance, she said, and resources are already strained.

“Half of our families don’t get SNAP because they’re working,” Higgins said. “Others that have benefits, it’s because they have small children, are disabled or elderly.”

Healthy Incentives Program

According to data from the Department of Transitional Assistance, 986 households in Hampshire County participate in the Healthy Incentives Program. The program served 37,500 families, or 69,000 individuals, in the past year throughout the state.

Implemented in April 2017, HIP provides monthly incentives of $40-$80 to SNAP recipients, dependent on family size, to match purchases of local fruits and vegetables dollar-for-dollar at farm stands, farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs.

“Cutting SNAP would reduce the number of people who are able to use HIP,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, in a statement. “This would hurt low-income families across Massachusetts who are already at a disproportionate risk for preventable dietary diseases/health problems.”

According to Pitcoff, more than 70 percent of SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are employed, and most households receiving benefits include children or seniors.

The House bill also would eliminate a degree of “categorical eligibility,” which allows individuals and families earning more than the federal poverty rate to still receive SNAP benefits to offset living in states with higher costs of living. In Massachusetts, individuals and families can receive SNAP benefits if they earn 200 percent over the federal poverty rate, Sylvester explained, but under the House bill that would be knocked down to 130 percent and take benefits away from tens of thousands.

“Obviously, that will increase the amount of hunger, and increase the number of people who need food assistance from pantries,” Sylvester said.

Sylvester also said cutting SNAP benefits takes away an economic stimulus for the state, as participants receive an estimated $18 million every month in benefits being spent locally on food and produce. Community Action purchases food from the Western Massachusetts Food Bank, Higgins said, and any reductions in funding or increases in need would have far-reaching impacts across the programs.

“If that money goes away, there is nobody that will make it up,” Higgins said. “Us all going out on our own and raising what we can raise to put food in the pantries isn’t going to solve the problem.”

‘Playground bullies’

According to McGovern’s office, the proposed cuts would cause 265,000 children to lose access to free school meals, and cut $9.2 billion from programs that support veterans, chronically homeless people and teenagers aging out of the foster care system. In Massachusetts, more than 400,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, according to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.

“Republicans are acting more like playground bullies taking kids’ lunch money rather than responsible legislators,” McGovern said. “Republicans are using these cuts to nationalize an unproven and underfunded state-based workforce bureaucracy experiment.”

Sharing stories about how SNAP has helped individuals personally is one of the most effective ways to communicate the urgency to politicians, Sylvester said.

“Personal stories are the thing that makes the difference,” Sylvester said.

The Senate is expected vote on its final version of the farm bill around the July 4 holiday, Sen. Mitch McConnell told Reuters.

“I hope the bipartisan process in the Senate leads to a better bill that strengthens our farm safety net and anti-hunger programs so this attack on our most vulnerable never reaches the president’s desk,” McGovern said.

Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at