Meant to save billions, the Farm Bill’s controversial cuts to nutrition assistance programs have some local leaders using a loophole in the legislation to keep poor families fed. And while the action has put food in the mouths of the poor, critics say it may derail the bill’s cost-savings efforts.

The loophole has to do with a federal provision, called “Heat and Eat,” which allows those in need to receive added food stamp benefits if they qualify for heating assistance. Before the Farm Bill changes, people needed only to receive  $1 in state heating aid to qualify. The Washington Post reports Congress sought to limit the program by raising the minimum requirement to $20 – a move that aimed to save about $8.5 billion over 10 years.

But to keep the needy from having their benefits cut, governors in eight states – Montana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont – have simply started giving families the other $19 dollars to continue to qualify for additional food stamp benefits – a move House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) referred to as “this cheating and this fraud,” The Washington Post reports.

Other states are looking to do the same. The Wisconsin Radio Network reports representative Katrina Shankland (D) has asked Gov. Scott Walker (R) to provide the extra funding to keep 255,000 Wisconsin households from having their benefits cut. The Bangor Daily News reports Maine is also considering such a move.

Congress warns against the tactic, saying it amounts to stealing. “Governors who choose to undermine the bipartisan reforms in the farm bill are putting those who depend on the home heating program at risk, and taking money out of every American taxpayer’s pocket,” Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said in a statement.

But those involved in the action argue that the congressional forces responsible for the cuts are more interested in politics than people. “The pushback is political games, rather than dealing with the folks on the ground,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) told The Washington Post

Bullock added that by offering additional state assistance, 2,000 Montana households with a combined income of $10,000 or less a year will continue to receive additional aid – most of which would go toward helping seniors and the disabled.

In most cases, providing the higher heating payments for residents in need won’t cost any state funds. The Washington Post reports this is because this funding comes in the form of federal block grants, of which most states have a surplus at the end of the year.

For example, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post that by providing the increased minimum payments, his state would ensure benefits for 400,000 low-income residents. This means the state will pay an additional $8 million in heating aid, but the $190 million it receives in federal block grants will easily cover the cost. 

Wisconsin, too, is in a similar position. Shankland told the Wisconsin Radio Network that by allocating $5.4 million to additional heating aid, $276.3 million would be preserved for low-income families without spending any additional state funds.

Shankland is determined in her fight. “Congress passed a bill betting against the states and the value they place on protecting those people who are most vulnerable, and they are losing,” she told The Stevens Point Journal.


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