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Last updated: September 20. 2013 9:10AM - 2593 Views
Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press



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WASHINGTON — The House has voted to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation’s main feeding program used by more than one in seven Americans.


Rep. Richard Hudson, who represents almost all of Robeson County, joined 216 other representatives in a 217-210 vote that was a win for conservatives after Democrats united in opposition and some GOP moderates said the cut was too high. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton who represents a small part of Robeson County, joined all other Democrats in opposition to the bill. Fifteen Republicans voted against the measure.


“Today’s vote offers the first reforms and savings to SNAP law since welfare reform in 1996, strengthening programs while eliminating waste, fraud and abuse,” Hudson said in a statement. ““Under President Obama, the cost of food stamps has doubled from $37.6 billion to $78 billion and continues to grow. While the food stamp program serves a noble purpose to provide support for many Americans who have hit bottom, it is not meant to keep them there.


“We need to equip our citizens with the tools they need to participate in our workforce and become self-sufficient,” Hudson said. “The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 encourages and enables work participation while strengthening the integrity of the food stamp program so that federal nutrition programs serve those truly in need.”


The bill’s savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.


Food stamps are a big part of Robeson County’s economy. The county in late 2012 was projected to issue almost $80 million worth of food stamps before the end of that year, an increase of about 85 percent since 2008.


House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program’s cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.


Finding a compromise — and the votes — to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. The conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats opposed any cuts and some moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.


House leaders were still shoring up votes on the bill just hours before the vote. To make their case, the Republican leaders emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.


“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most,” Cantor said on the floor just before the bill passed. “And most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job … They want what we want.”


The new work requirements proposed in the bill would allow states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child over age 1 if that person has child care available. The requirements would be applicable to all parents whose children are over age 6 and attending school.


The legislation is the House’s effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren’t high enough. That bill included around $2 billion in cuts annually.


After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill would come later, with deeper cuts.


In order to negotiate the bill with the Senate, Republicans said Thursday that one more step is needed — the House will have to hold a procedural vote to allow both the farm and food stamp bills to go to a House-Senate conference together. It is unclear whether Republicans who pushed to split the two bills will oppose that effort.


Once the bills get to that conference, negotiations with the Senate will not be an easy task. A Senate farm bill passed in June would only make a tenth of the cuts to food stamps, or $400 million, and the White House has issued a veto threat against the House bill. The two chambers will also have to agree on policy for farm subsidies amid disputes between different crops.


Every Democrat voting on Thursday opposed the bill. Many took to the floor with emotional appeals.


House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill is a “full assault on the health and economic security of millions of families.” Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett called it the “let them starve” bill.


White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that House Republicans are attempting to “literally take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans in order to, again, achieve some ideological goal.”


The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.


Around 1.7 million of those would be the able-bodied adults who would be subject to work requirements after three months of receiving food stamps. The 1996 welfare law put that limit into law, but most every state has been allowed to waive that requirement since the Great Recession began in 2008.


The other 2.1 million would lose benefits because the bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they already receive other benefits. Some of those people who qualify that way do not meet current SNAP income and asset tests.


The Census Bureau reported this week that just over half of those who received food stamps were below poverty and 44 percent had one or more people with a disability.


By state, Oregon led the nation in food stamp use at 20.1 percent, or 1 in 5, due in part to generous state provisions that expand food stamp eligibility to families. Oregon was followed by more rural or more economically hard-hit states, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee. Wyoming had the fewest households on food stamps, at 7 percent.


Staff writer Bob Shiles contributed to this report.


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