Hermita Santa Cruz holds her bag of groceries after receiving them from the Curly's House Hope Relief Food Bank on Jan. 8, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
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Congress could cut another $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits

Updated

Just two months after America’s 47 million food stamp recipients got hit with an automatic $5 billion benefits reduction, Congress is getting ready to cut even more out of the nutrition program. Lawmakers are currently hammering out the details on a finalized 2013 Farm Bill which is likely to reduce food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over the next decade.

Unlike the $5 billion “hunger cliff,” the Farm Bill proposal would not cut benefits for all food stamp recipients across the board. Instead, it would affect approximately 850,000 households spread across 15 states. The affected households would lose an average $90 per month in benefits, according to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service.

“It does seem like that $8 billion number is the number that is being cemented into reality here,” said Massachusett’s Democrat Rep. Jim McGovern, a member of the Farm Bill conference committee. The language currently being finalized represents a compromise between House legislation that would have slashed food stamps by $39 billion and a Senate bill that proposed only $4 billion in benefit cuts.

The proposed compromise measure would save $8.7 billion by restricting so-called “Heat and Eat” policies on the state level. The District of Columbia, New York, California, and 13 other states currently use the policy as a way to reduce paperwork and claim additional food stamp benefits for low-income citizens.

Here’s how “Heat and Eat” works: In most states across the country, people who spend more than half their income on housing and utilities are eligible for deductions which increase their benefit levels. For the most part, that means food stamp recipients need to show state agencies their housing and utility bills in order to claim the deduction. But in “Heat and Eat” states, anyone who qualifies for energy assistance is assumed to also qualify for the shelter deduction. That means that state agencies can automatically increase how much their citizens receive in food stamps by giving them a purely symbolic energy subsidy. Anyone who receives even $1 in energy assistance is eligible for more food stamp benefits than they would otherwise receive.

If the proposed $8.7 billion cut went through, then only people who receive a minimum of $20 in energy assistance would qualify for the deduction. Last week, the Washington Post editorial board said that would mean closing a massive “loophole” in nutrition law which provides some food stamp recipients with unearned benefit hikes.

“While technically legal and undoubtedly well-intended, this maneuver results in many people receiving money based on utility expenses they did not actually incur,” wrote the Post’s editorial board.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, has also defended attempts to target “Heat and Eat.” Responding to criticism of the Senate Farm Bill, which would have cut $4 billion by targeting “Heat and Eat” policies, her office said the cuts would eliminate only “program misuse.” As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Stabenow is deeply involved in current Farm Bill negotiations.

Opponents of the new proposal view “Heat and Eat” as a crucial instrument for bringing more food assistance to many of those who need it most. Caryn Long, director of the food bank coalition Feeding Pennsylvania, emphasized that “Heat and Eat” policies benefited those who already qualified for both food stamps and energy assistance.

“They may be receiving a minimal benefit not because they’re not eligible for more, but because federal funding for the LIHEAP [energy assistance] program has been significantly cut,” she said. As msnbc reported earlier this week, federal energy assistance has been cut by one-third over the past three years.

In Pennsylvania alone, Feeding Pennsylvania estimates that the proposed cuts will cost food stamp recipients $136 million per year. That amounts to roughly 51 million meals annually, nearly half the number of meals which the food bank coalition provided to low-income Pennsylvania residents last year.

“There’s no way we can double our capacity to meet the need from these people who are going to lose [food stamp] benefits,” said Long, who added that she expected disabled and elderly food stamp recipients to be affected most significantly by the proposed cut.

Rep. McGovern told msnbc he intends to vote against any Farm Bill which includes the proposed cuts.

“I am not going to support a Farm Bill that increases hunger, period,” he said.

Although the White House has made clear its desire to pass a new Farm Bill, the debate over food stamps could make it impossible. Progressive Democrats have already signalled their willingness to kill the bill if that means preventing substantial cuts to the program, and some conservative Republicans might reject the proposed $8.7 billion cut as too small. In May, some House Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against a $20.5 billion food stamp cut which they didn’t consider steep enough.

But even if food stamp benefits stay frozen at current levels for now, the program is due for a second “hunger cliff” in the next couple of years, when a $6 billion automatic cut kicks in.

“The government benefit in itself is not adequate, and states are struggling to help families and senior citizens to get by,” said McGovern. In a follow-up email, his office cited some of his constituents as an example. They included a senior citizen named William who receives $181 per month in food stamps and is struggling to cover medical expenses not covered by Medicaid. If the proposed cut goes through, said a McGovern spokesperson, then William would lose $80 per month in SNAP benefits.

“To just randomly pick a number, $8 billion, and go after this particular provision when there’s been no hearings to figure out what the consequences are…that’s just not the way we should be doing this,” said McGovern.

NOW With Alex Wagner, 12/10/13, 1:59 PM ET

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Congress could cut another $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits

Updated