By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - House Republicans want to require more adults who receive federal food stamp assistance to get a job in order to qualify.
"Newscasts tell stories of young surfers who aren't working, but cash their food stamps in for lobster,'' states a six-page briefing paper released by House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation proposed by House Republicans would reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $39 billion over the next 10 years.
It also would reduce the number of Americans receiving food stamps by 14 million - from 48 million to 34 million - by 2023, CBO estimates.
And it would cut funding for job training while imposing new work requirements, according to Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"This proposal is incredibly harsh,'' she said.
Advocacy groups for the poor are urging lawmakers to reject the legislation.
The bill contains provisions that were part of a House farm bill before lawmakers stripped SNAP money from the bill and narrowly passed a farm-programs-only measure in July. Traditionally, food stamp spending and agriculture programs have been part of the same bill.
"Bottom line, we think the proposal is going to increase hunger and is going to hurt churches and charities that are already stretched thin,'' said Christine Melendez Ashley, policy analyst for Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group.
An estimated 62 percent of the 3.18 million New Yorkers who receive SNAP benefits would have to re-apply directly to the program under the legislation because they automatically qualified for SNAP under another federal income assistance program.
Republicans want to clamp down on that system, making most families go through the paperwork of applying directly for SNAP benefits.
The proposed overhaul of SNAP is designed to rein in the program, House Republicans say.
"When we talk about food stamps, we've got to make sure that all the waste, fraud and abuse is cleaned up,'' Republican Rep. Tom Reed of Corning said Monday.
Reed highlighted one proposed requirement that would tighten rules requiring able-bodied adults without children to work, participate in job training, attend classes or even do volunteer work.
The current law requires work participation by childless adults, but allows for waivers in areas with high unemployment. Those work requirements were waived in almost every state for able-bodied adults under age 50 without children between 2007 and 2011, according to House Republicans. The GOP bill also would tighten work requirements for parents of children who receive SNAP benefits.
"You think people on food stamps should work? Why don't you give them a job?'' said Mark Dunlea, executive director of New York's Hunger Action Network. "Most of the people out of work want to go to work. Cutting off their food stamps isn't exactly going to motivate them. They are out there desperately trying to get a job.''
Dunlea said New York ranks close to last among states in helping people on welfare get jobs.
"We would say, 'Why don't you fix the welfare-to-work program before you start messing with food stamps-to-work?''' he said.
In New York, the legislation would be especially hard on lower-income working families whose high childcare and rent expenses help them qualify for other federal assistance but don't help them qualify for food stamps because the rules vary, Dunlea said.
Some low-income families around the state spend up to 80 percent of their income on rent, but federal rules cap the rental deduction at 50 percent, he said.
"About half of the households on food stamps have at least one person working,'' Dunlea said "So food stamps are very much a work supplement.''
Under the GOP legislation, another 850,000 families across the country would see their SNAP benefits reduced by about $90 a month because their eligibility for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) would no longer automatically qualify them for SNAP. Automatic enrollment would end for families receiving less than $20 a month from LIHEAP.
New York is the nation's largest user of the so-called "heat and eat'' rule, applying it even in cases when families don't have separate heating bills because it's included in their monthly rent - a common practice in apartment buildings.
House Republicans say the proposed change is designed to prevent abuse, saying that states such as New York are "gaming the system'' by providing some families as little as $1 a month for LIHEAP so they can qualify for SNAP.
"Any household paying their utility bills can still receive this deduction if their utility expenses meet program requirements for the allowance,'' Cantor's briefing paper states. "According to CBO, this proposal would save $8.7 billion over 10 years."