Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts: We must cut food stamps to save them

Once hailed as the savior of food stamps, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts has introduced a bill to cut $36 billion from the federal aid program over 10 years.

Up for re-election in 2014, the Republican says he’s trying to offer an alternative to both a budget proposal on the right that would effectively dismantle the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and another on the left that offers no savings at all.

Roberts said in an interview that the program must reform now or face more drastic changes down the road. “We have a program that could self-implode if we’re not careful. I don’t want to see that happen,” he said.

But critics complain that Roberts’ legislation would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of needy Americans at a time when many still struggle to make ends meet in a weakened economy.

“Every one of the provisions in the bill would have detrimental impact on those who need help,” said Joanna Sebelien, chief resource officer for Harvesters: Community Food Network, a Kansas City, Mo., food bank. “It’s just so, so frustrating.”

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the anti-hunger program spent $78 billion to deliver food assistance to 45 million Americans in an average month in fiscal year 2011, up from $33 billion spent on 26 million Americans in 2005.

To be eligible for food stamps, a household’s net income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $19,100 a year for a family of three.

Roberts acknowledges that his bill would cut benefits to some people, but he said some of the measures put in place in recent years to allow more people to receive food stamps ought to be rolled back. His legislation would repair the food stamp program’s bloated bureaucracy while ensuring that people who need benefits the most continue to receive them, the senator said. “I just want to restore integrity to the program,” he said. “. . . You’ve got a lot of situations where folks are really gaming the system, and that’s not right.”

In 1995, Roberts helped rescue food stamps when fellow Republicans in Congress tried to end the federal anti-hunger program. As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Roberts led a rebellion of like-minded GOP representatives who balked at a proposal by their party’s leadership that would have replaced the food stamp program with lump sum payments to the states.

Roberts helped push through changes the following year that reduced food stamp spending by $26 billion over six years by prohibiting non-citizens from receiving benefits and restricting able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of eligibility unless they were working at least half time.

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, called it disheartening to see a senator with a history of championing the food stamp program recommend such deep cuts in his new legislation. “It’s a sledgehammer solution to what I think is a hammer and nail problem,” Dean said.

Roberts argues that his bill is consistent with his lifetime of work battling hunger, not a departure from it. With everyone in Washington looking for ways to cut spending now, no program – not even food stamps – can be considered immune, he said.

“We have exploded the program to the degree that it becomes a target, and I just want to avoid that,” the senator said.

The Republican budget advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday, would slash $127 billion over the next decade by converting the food stamp program into a capped block grant to states. The Senate Democrats’ budget protects funding for food stamps while cutting $27.5 billion in farm subsidies.

Roberts’ plan keeps the federal program intact but proposes dramatic changes.

One major provision in his proposal would save $11.5 billion by limiting a federal option known as “categorical eligibility,” which allows states to raise or waive the requirement that households have less than $2,000 in assets in order to qualify for benefits.

Another would save $12 billion by closing a provision that allows low-income households that qualify for the federal assistance in paying energy bills to use standardized utility costs instead of actual utility costs in their application for food stamps, potentially qualifying them for higher benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that this provision would reduce benefits by an average of $90 per month per household.

Roberts’ bill also would save $8.8 billion by doing away with employment and training programs to help enrollees find work, and nutrition education programs. Other savings come from eliminating inflation adjustments for emergency food assistance, terminating automatic increases in benefits, and ending bonuses paid to states for processing timely applications and for enrolling more people.

Overhauling food stamps won’t be easy, but it’s essential, said Leslie Paige, vice president for policy and communication with Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit in Washington. The program is expanding too much with too little oversight, Paige said.

“This has to be done,” she said. “There is no possible way that you can continue on a trajectory that now has 48 million people and counting on (food stamps). You’re looking at 15 percent of the population and counting.”

Still, Roberts’ proposal to trim tens of billions of dollars from the food stamp program caught some people who serve the poor in his home state off guard.

“I don’t want to criticize Sen. Roberts – he does a lot of good for a lot of people – but we were just kind of surprised by this legislation,” said Brian Walker, president and CEO of Kansas Food Bank, a Wichita-based charity. “We hadn’t heard any rumblings of it, and he really has been a supporter of the food stamp program in the past.”

Food banks in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere already are hard pressed to make sure the neediest people in their communities have enough to eat every day, Walker said. His organization feeds 37,000 people a week in 85 Kansas counties. If food stamp benefits are reduced, Walker said, the burden will fall on charities to feed even more families.

Walker said he sent an email and spoke to a member of Roberts’ staff about his concerns.

“We understand that you have to do something about federal spending and balanced budgets, but if one of the first things you take aim at is targeting a program that helps put food on the tables of the less fortunate, that’s not something we really like,” he said.