WASHINGTON (news-press.com) - Florida, where nearly one n five residents is on food stamps, has a lot at stake as the House debates deep cuts in the program this week.
House Republicans want to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over 10 years. That's almost 10 times more than the Senate wants to cut and twice as much as cuts the House rejected earlier this summer.
They also want to add new work rules that could force more than 400,000 Floridians off SNAP rolls.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and other GOP leaders are expected to introduce legislation this week that would cut SNAP benefits by $20.5 billion over 10 years and save another $20 billion by curtailing eligibility.
After a summer congressional battle that eventually severed nutrition programs from farm legislation, conservatives are targeting the $75 billion annual program that helps lower-income people with their grocery bills. Their goal is to scale back benefits that ballooned during the recession, and close loopholes they believe have been exploited by people who don't meet income requirements.
"And we're going to bring a bill forward ... that actually says about food stamps, 'We want the people who need those food stamp benefits to get them,'" Cantor told Fox News in August. "But you know what? It's an issue of fairness. If they are able-bodied people who can work, they ought to do that in order to receive a government benefit. That's the proposal we are bringing forward."
Nearly 3.6 million Floridians received SNAP benefits in June, more than twice the 1.45 million who got them five years ago before the economy tanked. Only Idaho saw a higher rate of growth in the number of SNAP recipients over that period.
In 2008, before the recession, Floridians received nearly $1.8 billion in SNAP benefits. By 2012, it was $5.6 billion.
The House GOP legislation also is expected to more strongly to enforce the rule that jobless adults without children be limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years. The proposal would mean states would be unable to get a waiver from the three-month rule in areas of high unemployment.
A liberal policy group opposing the legislation estimates the provision would end SNAP benefits for between 2 million and 4 million adults, but congressional analysts have not confirmed that figure.
"This new proposal is a sad development, not only in how it would affect poor people but in what it says about our politics and our society," said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
House Republicans say it's about protecting the integrity of a safety-net program and promoting work.
"By encouraging people to engage in job training or workfare, we can help those in the program build the skills and gain the experience they need to become self-sufficient in the future," said Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for Cantor.
The Republican proposal would withhold benefits to people between 18 and 50 who aren't raising children and aren't employed at least 20 hours a week. In 2011, that was about 414,000 Floridians, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Nationally, the number of people in this category nationally grew 164 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to Congressional Research Service data supplied by Cantor's office.
Rep. Steve Southerland, the Panama City Republican who sponsored the work requirements in the earlier version of the farm bill, said the changes are as important as the money.
"A work requirement for able-bodied individuals I felt was good reform in the farm bill," he said. "It wasn't just about the dollar figure. It was also about the reforms."
When SNAP benefits run out, food banks often help fill in the gaps. But even they are being strained.
Rebecca Brislain, who heads the Florida Association of Food Banks, a non-profit association serving 3.5 million Floridians yearly, said she doesn't know where families will turn if Congress makes steep cuts in SNAP.
"We don't have the resources to fill that gap," she said recently. "We've already increased our (food collections) from 72 million pounds to 170 million pounds in the past four years. And that's with SNAP."
Even if the cuts being debated in Congress don't pass, SNAP benefits are scheduled to shrink by $29 a month for a family of three, starting Nov. 1. The 2009 economic stimulus package increased funding for the program, but that increase expires Sept. 30.
Florida's SNAP program will receive $379 million less over the next year, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.