House Republicans resurrected a 1990s-era fight over food stamps in their budget approved last week, arguing that any serious attempt to cut spending must include an overhaul of government programs that help needy families pay for food.
Congress already has started cutting some food programs, including reducing the Women, Infants and Children Program by $500 million as part of a deal on this year's budget. And last year, more than $2 billion in future funding for food stamps was redirected to other programs.
On Friday, the House approved a Republican proposal to overhaul the $65 billion food stamp program — known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by replacing it with capped block grants to states, which would pay for the aid but make it contingent on work or job training. That proposal was included in a 2012 budget plan put forward by Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
His plan lays out a fiscal vision for cutting $6.2 trillion from yearly federal deficits over the coming decade and has drawn widespread attention for its call for transforming Medicare into a voucher-like system that subsidizes purchases of private health insurance. It is likely to meet strong opposition is the Senate, where Democrats still have a majority.
Parallels to 1996
The food stamp component is similar to changes Republicans proposed as part of the welfare overhaul signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and Ryan echoed arguments from 15 years ago in his proposal, saying "America's safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency."
But back then, farm-state Republicans like Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who was then chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, blocked the reform effort.
Congress authorizes spending on hunger and agriculture programs in a massive farm bill every five years, and farm-state members have typically supported food programs in exchange for urban support for agriculture.
The next farm bill is due to be written next year, and it's unclear whether Republicans will take a different approach this time around because of pressure from constituents clamoring for budget cuts. A spokeswoman for Roberts, now the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Friday that he hasn't decided whether he would support an overhaul of the food stamp program.
Although many Republicans have enthusiastically supported Ryan's budget on the House floor, few have mentioned food stamp issue in their speeches.
They may be hearing from constituents like 66-year-old Connie Downey of Omaha, Neb., a former real estate agent who saw her savings erode when she was diagnosed with lung disease. Downey is on the cusp of qualifying for food stamps, though her $3,000 in savings still puts her above Nebraska's $2,000 asset limit for eligibility.
If her savings drop and she qualifies for federal food aid, Downey said she'd buy the nutritional drinks recommended by a visiting nurse as well as fruits and vegetables. Right now, she's relying on a daily $2 delivery from Meals on Wheels.
"I had saved this money, because I thought if I got sick, I'd have it to back me up," Downey said. "I didn't know it would keep me from being able to eat."
The Agriculture Department says the food stamp program is designed to expand and contract with the economy. The average stay on the program is nine months, and half of the recipients are children.
Anti-hunger advocates criticize plan
Anti-hunger advocates said they worry that funding cuts by Congress coupled with rising food costs could devastate families struggling in the sluggish economy. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week that his department, which oversees SNAP and other food programs, is increasingly concerned that Congress is depleting the reserves.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has long sought more money for anti-hunger programs, said the suggested overhaul would dismantle the food stamp program by limiting money for it.
"Budgets are moral documents. They reflect our values," he said. "There is a very real risk that we could lose some of these programs that provide a circle of protection to people who are poor."
Conservatives said that may be necessary.
Ryan has argued states are encouraged to add people to the rolls because greater participation means increased funding. The program serves roughly 44 million people today, more than double the number a decade ago, he noted.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has been working on welfare issues since Ronald Reagan was president. He said Ryan's proposal could be seen as conservatives' opening shot in a debate about overall assistance to the poor.
"You don't just want to do it with a meat cleaver, and the Ryan approach with work incentives is a good approach," Rector said.
Opponents of the Ryan plan say food stamps not only help low-income people, they benefit farmers and the retailers who sell food.
"These are people in grocery stores, they are farmers, they are all the people around the supply chain who support this program," said Vicki Escarra, president of the anti-hunger group Feeding America. "I think people are really concerned about the budget and the deficit, and I understand that ... but there are lots of ways we can do this without the vast majority of cuts being focused on programs that really need help right now."