uts in New Jersey food aid focus on heating assistance program
Written by Malia Rulon Herman Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON —Nearly 160,000 New Jersey families will lose an average $90 in federal food assistance each month under a new farm law, but the cuts won’t take effect immediately, an administration official said.
The families will continue to receive some assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
The cuts will be phased in over the coming year. In addition, new enrollees won’t be eligible for a program that automatically increases SNAP benefits for people already receiving federal help with their heating bills.
“Some people have the impression that within a week, thousands of households will lose their benefits, and that is not the case,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “They will be gradually affected in a 15-to-17-month period.”
Until now, people who received as little as $1 a year in heating aid through the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) have automatically qualified for enhanced food assistance through SNAP under a program called “heat and eat.”
But the long-delayed farm bill signed into law last week toughens the standards for receiving SNAP benefits through the heat-and-eat program. Now, families must receive at least $20 a year from LIHEAP to qualify for the SNAP benefits.
Supporters of the new rules say the heat-and-eat program represents a “loophole” that allows New Jersey and the 16 other states participating in the program to provide extra food for low-income families. But advocates for the hungry bristle at the word “loophole,” saying those families truly need the assistance.
“We need to expand access to the program, not decrease access,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “The lines at the food pantries are doing nothing but getting longer, and the food supplies that are coming in are decreasing.”
LaTourette explained that LIHEAP funding goes to families who need help paying their utility bills, which means renters whose utility costs are rolled into their rent are ineligible.
States use the heat-and-eat program to provide SNAP benefits to renters who don’t have separate utility bills — without creating additional paperwork for overstressed workers.
“This is a way of getting all of those people access to the benefits that they in fact deserve,” LaTourette said. “It is not a loophole.”
Jim Weill, president of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, agreed. He said current SNAP benefits are inadequate to last an entire month. Using the heat-and-eat program made those SNAP benefits “somewhat less inadequate,” he said.
“From our position, it’s not a loophole, it’s a saving grace,” Weill said. “It helps get slightly better benefits to people who desperately need them.”
Theoretically, New Jersey could keep the 160,000 families from losing SNAP money by raising the amount of LIHEAP aid they’re receiving to $20 a year. But that would cost the state about $3.2 million, according to LaTourette.
Concannon defended the new, tougher heat-and-eat standards, saying Congress never intended for states to use LIHEAP funding to beef up SNAP benefits.
“It wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t the active intent of Congress,” he said of the heat-and-eat program.
He added that federal officials “are going to do whatever we can to mitigate the impact (of the SNAP cuts) on these households.”
The farm law’s new standards for the heat-and-eat program are expected to save $8.6 billion in SNAP spending over 10 years, about half the $16.6 billion the law is projected to save over that period. They won’t affect SNAP recipients in states that don’t participate in heat-and-eat.
But the cuts come on top of a November SNAP cut that lowered monthly benefits by $36 — to $632 — for four-person families, and by $11 — to $189 — for individuals.
At the Manasquan Food Pantry, manager Candace Talleur said more cuts, no matter their timing, are going to be “really hard” on people. In the past month, she said, the pantry has signed up about 25 new people, about 15 more than normal.
“Fifteen would be a lot,” Talleur said. “Twenty-five is huge.”
She said new enrollees are victims of a still-shaky economy.
“People are clearly struggling to stay afloat,” she said. “They’re coming in and they’re feeling embarrassed and upset.”
Clark Paradise, president of Your Grandmother’s Cupboard at a small strip mall on Route 37 in Toms River, said his organization has seen enormous demand since Superstorm Sandy left tens of thousands of people homeless.
The charity collects and delivers food, clothes, toiletries and toys to the area’s hungry and homeless. It’s seeing demand from people who lost jobs at Atlantic City casinos and even from people out of work due to the boardwalk fire in Seaside Park on Sept. 12, he said.
“We’re going to see even more people coming to us for help and we don’t have enough food for the people we already serve,” he said of the SNAP cuts.
Ocean County Hunger Relief, which includes 28 church pantries and 300 volunteers, works closely with the Ocean County Board of Social Services to supplement food when public assistance doesn’t stretch far enough. Demand has increased in recent years because of continuing cuts in federal aid, said executive director Carol Latif.
Deborah Frank, founder of Children’s HealthWatch and a professor of pediatric medicine at the Boston University of School of Medicine, said the cuts in food assistance will have long-term health consequences as well.
“This benefit is becoming progressively more inadequate for a healthy diet,” Frank said. “From a health perspective, it’s like someone is bleeding slowly and you rush up and slash the wound to open it further rather than heal the wound.”
Still, the cuts could have been worse, said Bob Greenstein of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He says the new SNAP rules are a “relatively favorable outcome for SNAP” in contrast to the deep cuts proposed by the House last year.
The original House proposal would have cut SNAP spending by $40 billion. Concannon said it also included other draconian provisions, such as one that would have made people convicted of a felony ineligible for SNAP benefits for the rest of their lives.
“I consider the farm bill a tremendous victory,” Concannon said. “It’s not a perfect bill, but considering the proposal that the House had passed months ago… this was as good as we might have hoped for.”
New Jersey’s two senators split their votes on the bill, with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez voting yes and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker voting no.
Booker, who voluntarily lived on food stamps for a week while he was mayor of Newark, said the SNAP cuts are “deeply unfair.”
Contributing: Brian Tumulty, Gannett Washington Bureau, Dustin Racioppi and Erik Larsen, Asbury Park Press.