Connecticut and New York have found a way around federal budget cuts that played a central role in the massive farm bill passed this month: bump up home heating assistance a few million bucks in return for preserving more than a half-billion dollars in food stamp benefits.
The moves by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- with the possibility that more governors could follow -- cheer social service advocates who say the deep recession and weak economic recovery have pounded low-income workers and the unemployed who rely on heating assistance and food stamps.
The $100 billion per year farm bill cut $800 million annually in the food stamp program by ending some state practices that give recipients minimal heating assistance -- as low as $1 per person -- to trigger higher food stamp benefits. Compromise legislation requires states to give recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.
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Connecticut and New York have both moved to bump up heating assistance in order to preserve the food stamp benefits, a decision backed by advocates and panned by critics who say it's just a way to circumvent the point of the bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7.
"The extra money being spent is an artificial boost of an amount that a household is receiving, but they're doing so though a scheme, basically," said Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
As much as 95 percent of food stamp funding is from Washington and "states don't have a concern about increased food stamp costs," she said.
"We need to be sure that money spent goes to those most in need rather than states using a loophole to boost money they're receiving," Sheffield said.
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Anne Foley, an undersecretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, said increasing heating assistance is "absolutely not a loophole."
"It's a way in which we identify households that have extraordinary needs and legitimately ought to have additional federal funding for nutrition assistance," she said.
An order by Malloy will spend about $1.4 million in federal energy aid, increasing benefits for 50,000 low-income Connecticut residents from $1 to $20 so they do not lose $112 in monthly food stamp benefits. It will preserve about $67 million in food stamp benefits. New York will spend about $6 million more in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding to maintain food stamp benefits totaling $457 million.
"The state has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers to make sure they can get food for themselves and their families," Cuomo said in announcing his decision.
Fourteen other states and Washington, D.C., participate in the so-called "heat and eat" program that leverages nominal payments into higher food stamp benefits: California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
Low-income residents will not likely feel an immediate impact on heating assistance, which is funded well in advance. Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney called it a "next-winter issue."
But failure by the states to act on the program could cost a low-income family $90 a month in food benefits, according to some estimates.
"For a family of four, that's a week or more of groceries," said Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
Vermont, for example, would increase spending on heating assistance to $400,000 from $75,000, "which we think is a very worthwhile thing to do," she said. Parisi said she expects the state to budget the additional heating assistance funding to maintain $6 million in food stamp money.
But Robert Greenstein, founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on fiscal policy and programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals, criticized some state food stamp policies.
Greenstein wrote in an analysis that some states are stretching the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formula to not only simplify paperwork for recipients, but also to boost benefits "by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur."
"Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend," he said.