WASHINGTON — Competing bills in the House and Senate have set the stage for a clash over the future of the food stamp program and the government's role in fighting hunger.
Increased enrollment in the food stamp program during the economic recession caused costs to rise from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion last year, and now lawmakers in both chambers are targeting the program for cuts.
Troubled by the rising costs, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and Republicans on the panel approved a plan that would slash food aid for 2 million people.
Usage of the program formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rose as the economy took a nosedive, and will come down gradually as the economy improves, experts say. But that won't happen as long as poverty and unemployment rates remain high, said Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois.
"SNAP is doing exactly what it was supposed to do during economic downturns," Gundersen said. "It expanded to meet the demand."
But as the economy recuperates, dependence on food stamps has yet to decline. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that, under current law, more people will seek benefits before the rolls go down. Higher food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law have expanded the rolls.
Nationally, participation has risen more than 70 percent in the past five years, to now include one in seven Americans.
Heritage Foundation analyst Rachel Sheffield said the proposed House food stamp cuts, at less than 3 percent annually, are nominal. The conservative-leaning, D.C.-based organization says food stamp funding is a microcosm of a much larger issue: skyrocketing government spending on entitlement programs.
The proposal in the Democrat-led Senate calls for fewer reductions than the House version, but would still slash benefits for 500,000 people by $90 each month.
The current farm bill expires Sept. 30. Leaders hope to approve a new one before the monthlong congressional recess in August.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget has signaled support for the Senate farm bill, calling SNAP "a cornerstone of our Nation's food assistance safety net." The president's 2014 budget request does not recommend any food stamp cuts.
Many fiscal conservatives in the House, including Peterson, have refused to consider the farm bill without significant reductions. Food stamps now account for close to 80 percent of the legislation's cost.
"You have some Democrats who've taken the position . that SNAP can't be cut one penny," Peterson said. "That's a ridiculous position."