Food stamp cuts have been devastating low income people across the country who are in a precarious state of food insecurity as they struggle to feed themselves and their children. Lately, they’ve developed an unlikely ally. No, it’s not church groups, charities, the Occupy movement, or any other grass roots organizations…it’s their own state governments and welfare benefits offices. States are rippling with rebellion over the cuts, and they’re getting creative about helping their residents get the food assistance they need.
States were offered an out called the “heat and eat” program, in which people receiving heating assistance (even if it was as little as $1 per month) were entitled to extra food assistance. Of those states, six are already using this loophole, and two more are thinking about it, much to the surprise of the members of Congress who thought the loophole would end up being too troublesome for states to bother with it. Instead, states desperate to prevent radical cuts to food assistance to people who are already having a difficult time are jumping on it, causing many Republicans to demand that Congress go back to the drawing board to close the loophole.
Heat and eat was implemented in the first place because numerous families receiving financial assistance are forced to choose between paying for heat and paying for food at the end of the month as their available funds start to dry up. This reflects the outdated metrics used by government agencies that set benefits amounts, which are often woefully inadequate when the cost of living in a given area is considered. Thus, even with assistance, people were experiencing hunger and/or cold, which was in turn leading to poor health and problems like having trouble focusing in school and difficulty at work.
The program provided a way out for states that wanted to offer extra help, but couldn’t do so under existing funding frameworks for benefits programs. Much to the surprise of many conservatives in government, states have been fighting the food assistance cuts embedded in the farm bill hard, and one of the ways they’ve done it is through this program. It allows them to restore or improve nutritional assistance for families who are clearly struggling to meet their needs every month.
Even with heat and eat assistance, families are still relying on food banks and other forms of charity to get themselves through the month, illustrating that the program still isn’t perfect. However, it does make things better, and it comes with an added bonus: the additional assistance money gets spent in the state, boosting local economies. Government benefits have a strong rate of return, as investing in people tends to generate a ripple effect. For every dollar spent at a supermarket through the heat and eat program, low-income people are supporting jobs for workers at every stage of the food production chain, and they’re making their own communities wealthier and better able to offer more options to their residents.
Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture.