A polarized U.S. House voted Thursday to reduce food stamp funding by nearly $40 billion over the next decade, setting up a confrontation with the Senate over a program that helps feed one of every six Maine residents.
Thursday’s 217-210 vote in the House was largely a symbolic victory for Republicans who are intent on making deep cuts to an $80 billion-a-year program that they contend has grown excessively in recent years.
The Democratic-controlled Senate, which previously supported a $4 billion cut, is unlikely to go along with dramatically larger cuts, which critics say would eliminate food aid for millions of struggling families and veterans.
“It’s bad for seniors, it’s bad for children, it hits veterans and people in the military,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, who joined fellow Maine Rep. Mike Michaud and all other Democrats in voting against the bill. “It’s not the kind of cut that Maine can sustain and I feel confident that it will not get a positive vote in the Senate.”
If enacted, the eligibility changes in the House bill would cause an estimated 3.8 million Americans to lose food stamp benefits next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. State-by-state impacts were not available Thursday.
The bill’s savings would be achieved by allowing states to establish broad new work requirements for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs, The Associated Press reported. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
While the final dollar figure remains unknown, it is clear that cuts are coming to the food stamp program. And those cuts will be felt in Maine, which had the fourth-highest percentage of residents on food stamps in the nation last year, 17.8 percent.
Maine’s average enrollment in the food stamp program — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — exploded from 173,000 in fiscal year 2008 to nearly 253,000 last year. That growth mirrors the national trend triggered by the Great Recession.
The number of food stamp recipients in Maine is now decreasing, with the federal government allocating $30.4 million to 249,548 individuals (including children) in August. Nationwide, about 47 million people receive food stamp benefits.
Matt Westerlund, of Sanford, said his family of four began receiving food assistance about three years ago, after his youngest son was born with serious congenital heart defects and Westerlund’s work hours were reduced. His son has since undergone three heart surgeries.
“Without food stamps, we either would have gone hungry or been kicked out of our house,” Westerlund said.
He said he is now starting his own business and the family is receiving less assistance — about $100 a week, down from more than $150 a week initially.
Westerlund has followed the debate over food stamp funding in part as a member of the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive grass-roots group that opposes the cuts approved by the House. He said he doesn’t believe some politicians’ rhetoric claiming widespread fraud and waste in the system.
“The people who get hurt when there are cuts are the kids,” he said.
Republican House members argued Thursday that their bill would cut abuse in the system by making it harder for “able-bodied” adults with no dependents to receive assistance. Dozens of states, including Maine, took advantage of a federal waiver to provide food stamps to adults who could not find work.
“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican from Virginia who crafted much of the bill. “And most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job.”
The administration of Maine Gov. Paul LePage has sought to reduce Medicaid assistance to able-bodied, childless adults but has maintained the food stamps waiver, which is paid for entirely with federal dollars.
John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the department had no comment on whether the administration supports the changes in the House bill.
Martins acknowledged, however, that the political fight in Congress is adding to uncertainty about food stamps. Payments are scheduled to increase with a cost-of-living adjustment in October, but will then fall with the expiration of an extra amount authorized by Congress during the recession.
“It’s a little bit complicated these days,” Martins said.
Typically, food stamps are incorporated into the larger Farm Bill, dealing with agriculture policy and assistance programs, to build bipartisan support from both rural and urban lawmakers.
But House Republicans split the farm and food stamp provisions this summer after the conservative wing of the party said the $20.5 billion in proposed cuts did not go far enough.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., didn’t exactly praise the House bill Thursday, but urged his colleagues to pass a bill just so they can begin final negotiations with Senate Democrats. But Lucas lamented the heated political atmosphere on the issue.
“As I said at the beginning of the debate, it should not be this hard to pass a bill to make sure the consumers in this country and around the world have enough to eat,” Lucas said. “But everything seems hard these days.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: