WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted this week to cut almost $4 billion from the country’s food assistance program, utilized by more than one in seven Americans — and nearly a third of Scotland County residents.
The bill, dubbed The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, reduces funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by 5 percent. The 217-210 vote was a win for Republicans, most of whom voted along party lines. Moderates called the cuts high, and Democrats speculate that if enacted, the cuts may have a far-reaching effect on the economy.
“Today’s vote offers the first reforms and savings to SNAP law since welfare reform in 1996,” said Rep. Richard Hudson in a statement. According to Hudson, the changes would strengthen food assistance programs “while eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.”
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.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat, called the reform vote “disappointing,” and said that the bill may have an unintended affect on business.
“People use this assistance to purchase items from local stores, and a lot of our Scotland County grocery stores,” Pierce said. “Businesses will suffer when you start cutting food stamps.”
If the cuts pass into law, Pierce said the United States government will have broken a promise.
“The government needs to be held accountable for programs they create and then cut back when they don’t go the way they thought things should,” Pierce said. “They end up penalizing the people.”
Scotland County’s food stamp enrollment is more than double the national rate. More than 11,000 of the some 36,000 people living in Scotland County receive an average of $1,500 annually in food assistance, for a total of $15,501,000 in yearly benefits.
“In anything you are going to have some people abuse the system, but some of these people on assistance are our veterans, and the families of people who lost their jobs,” Pierce said.
Hudson contends that the food stamps program has become bloated in recent years, and badly needs the reform.
“Under President Obama, the cost of food stamps has doubled from $37.6 billion to $78 billion and continues to grow,” Hudson said. “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.”
Pierce said the increased number of those receiving assistance in Scotland County can be blamed on lay offs like those at the House of Raeford factory, which recently closed its doors.
“Those people weren’t looking for free hand outs. They wanted to work, and we need to stop penalizing them because the economy is bad,” Pierce said.
Marston resident Terry Watkins said that he is in favor of the cuts because “there are too many people just sitting around collecting checks.”
“I wish they would get rid of the whole thing,” Watkins said. “Those people used to get the (surplus) food from the government and things were better then than they are now.”
Watkins said that Scotland County’s 15.5 percent unemployment rate “would be lower if people weren’t getting everything free from the government.”
Laurinburg resident Wally McCall said that while he never used food stamps, “it was nice to know they were there” when he was laid off a decade ago after the factory he was working for in Asheville went bankrupt.
“Everybody can sometimes use a bump up,” McCall said. “It can be a trampoline to bounce people back, and that’s something worth spending money on.”
For supporters of the cutbacks, 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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.