Heat and Eat: State Responses to the Changed Federal Law
The following article was released March 21 and appears in the website of the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization working to eradicate hunger. It is reprinted with permission.
In the 2014 Farm Bill (the Agriculture Act of 2014), Congress chose to narrow the scope for states to operate “Heat and Eat” programs that help Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients meet their food and utility bills. Congress didn’t act to end the coordination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and SNAP through Heat and Eat. Rather, it acted to change the rules and require states to invest more energy assistance benefits to trigger the SNAP option. The Senate bill put the minimum state investment at $10 per household (the Congressional Budget Office estimated this would save $4 billion). The House bill – and the final law – set the threshold at $20, taking $8.55 billion from low-income households according to CBO. In neither case did CBO enumerate how many states it expected to drop the option and how many would adjust their payments and keep the option. But Congress chose to narrow, not to eliminate the option.
And that choice was the right one. The Heat and Eat option helps states coordinate heating and food assistance, reduce administrative costs and red tape, and provide more adequate SNAP benefits to struggling households. Now, as Congress and CBO anticipated, a number of states are opting to maintain their “Heat and Eat” programs under these new requirements, avoiding a cascade of new paperwork and office visits by clients and verification efforts by already over-stretched caseworkers, and protecting low-income households from these harmful reductions in already inadequate SNAP benefits.
Such reductions would come on top of one that took effect in November 2013 that reduced benefits for all households. They would further erode benefit levels. Lines at food banks and research have long demonstrated that SNAP benefits aren’t enough to get people through the month, and an Institute of Medicine report released last year underscored the need to improve SNAP benefit levels.
States opting to maintain their “Heat and Eat” programs include Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. (List current as of March 19, 2014)
What States Are Saying
- “New York State is stepping up to help families in need who are losing vital food assistance because of Washington cuts to the SNAP program…. These federal cuts have made it harder for our state’s most vulnerable residents to put food on the table. The State has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers to make sure they can get food for themselves and their families.” – Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York
- ”Rhode Island is ensuring that our state’s most vulnerable residents such as the elderly and disabled citizens continue to benefit from the SNAP program” – Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, Rhode Island
- “Government’s role is to help people help themselves, and these steps are necessary to help our most vulnerable residents and families meet their most basic needs.” - Governor Deval Patrick, Massachusetts
- “Congress wrote the bill. Congress passed the bill. And now states are implementing the law, your reprehensible comments nonwithstanding.” – Governor Dannel P. Malloy, Connecticut, in a letter to Speaker Boehner (pdf)
- “In these challenging and trying times, our most vulnerable families may not have been able to absorb another hit.” – Kait Gillis, spokeswoman, Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
- “It was a decision the governor made to ensure low-income families don’t see their already minimal food budgets cut.” – Rachel Wray, spokeswoman, Governor John Kitzhaber, Oregon
It is estimated this change in the law will result in monthly SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) cuts of up to $90 per household affecting the 850,000 seniors, children and individuals living with a disability. It is unclear how many New Jersey families may be in jeopardy. However, the cuts can be avoided if states decide to develop policies to comply with the new Heat and Eat program. Contact your state representative and Governor Chris Christie.