State may boost heating assistance to dodge cuts in food stamps
Washington state officials are considering increasing heating assistance to low-income families in a maneuver to avert $70 million in cuts to their food-stamp benefits called for under the 2014 farm bill — a tactic that has drawn threat of a Republican backlash.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Washington state may boost heating-assistance payments to low-income families in an effort to forestall reductions to their food-stamp benefits — a tactic seven other states have adopted to get around spending cuts mandated in the 2014 farm bill to the threat of a Republican backlash.
State officials have been deliberating changes to the so-called “heat and eat” policy, which under current rules enable some households to maximize food aid if they are enrolled in a federal energy-assistance program and receive any token amount in heating benefits.
But the farm bill signed by President Obama in February included a Republican-authored provision to cut $8.6 billion over 10 years from the federal food-stamp program by requiring heating aid to total more than $20 a year before households can qualify for more help with their grocery bills. That directive affected Washington and 13 other states, plus the District of Columbia.
Representatives from the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), Commerce Department and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office will meet later this month on whether to do just that, said John Camp, an administrator with DSHS who helps oversee the food-stamp program, called Basic Food in Washington.
Raising annual heating assistance to $20.01 for Basic Food households, Camp said, would mean diverting $14.5 million of the state’s $59 million in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grant from other low-income families. In return, it would prevent the loss of $70 million in annual food-stamp benefits.
Governors in seven states — Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana and Vermont — have already announced plans to make the trade-off. The District of Columbia is preparing to follow suit. Several others — California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin — are considering it.
Their maneuvers have enraged congressional Republicans. Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio threatened legislative action “to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.”
House Republicans originally pushed to cut food stamps by more than four times as much — $40 billion over a decade — but relented under Democratic opposition. The compromise was the change to the “heat and eat” provision — or a loophole, as some call it — under which some households receiving heating assistance were granted standard deductions for utility bills whether or not they actually incurred them.
Washington began automatically enrolling food-stamp recipients in the heating-assistance program in 2009 by giving them $1, partly as a way to streamline the application and reduce processing costs, Camp said. Both food stamps and the heating-assistance program target low-income households, and eligibility for one presumed eligibility for the other.
The administrative shortcut meant households with no utility bills, such as those living in public housing or people whose rent includes utilities, were credited with expenses they didn’t have. The deductions lowered their total household income, thus making them eligible for higher food-stamp allotments.
Since March 10, benefits for new Basic Food applicants have been calculated on actual out-of-pocket utility costs. Any benefits changes for current food-stamp recipients likely will go into effect in September.
In 2013, an average of 1.12 million Washington residents in nearly 600,000 households received food stamps. Nearly 40 percent of them were children under 18 and 10 percent were seniors.
Food-stamp benefits in Washington averaged about $125 a person each month, or $4.25 a day. Most people with incomes below twice the federal poverty level — or $23,340 for a single person — can qualify for help. But the aid shrinks beyond minimal incomes; a full-time worker earning the state minimum wage of $9.32 an hour would get only $15 a month.
In 2013, the federal government spent $76 billion in food stamps for 47.6 million Americans.
Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food-stamp program, said he supports the states’ right to avert cuts in food stamps.
Concannon said nearly half of parents who receive food stamps have jobs. But low pay and modest aid for food, he said, don’t go far.
“These families need all the help,” Concannon said.
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