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WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department moved again this week to cut spending on food stamps, this time proposing changes that would slice $4.5 billion from the program over five years, trimming monthly benefits by as much as $75 for 1 in 5 struggling families on nutrition assistance.

The latest plan would cut benefits for 19% of households on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, while increasing benefits for 16%. Almost 8,000 households would lose benefits entirely. Those cuts would be concentrated in cold northern states that would be most affected by a change in the way heating costs are calculated.

The number of families losing benefits is a tiny percentage of the nearly 40 million people who receive benefits, and even $4.5 billion over five years is a trim for a program that cost $68 billion in 2018 alone.

But the latest move is the third time President Donald Trump's administration has moved to cut food stamps. In December, the Agriculture Department said that it sought to place more stringent work requirements on the program. In July, the administration proposed a rule that would strip more than 3 million people of their benefits. The public comment periods for both those proposals have ended, and final rules are expected soon.

The public comment period for the most recent rule change will end Dec. 2, after which the department is supposed to consider each comment before issuing a final rule.

"If the three proposals become final and are implemented, millions of SNAP participants will have their benefits reduced or cut altogether -- particularly seniors, people with disabilities and working families -- and 500,000 children will lose access to school meals," Kate Leone, chief government relations officer at the advocacy group Feeding America, said in a statement.

The food stamp program kept over 3 million people out of poverty in 2018.

The program has become a perennial target for congressional Republicans, eager to cut some government spending and leery of the growth of a program that they see as fostering dependence on the government. In Congress, past efforts to make cuts to the program have been beaten back by a coalition of urban, liberal lawmakers, eager to protect constituent benefits, and rural-state senators, protective of a program that reliably buys crops grown by their farmers.

But the Trump administration, unable to win changes in Congress, is cutting through executive action.

This time, the administration aims to change how people's income and expenses are calculated when benefit awards are decided. The rule would change the way the department calculates housing and utility costs while considering the cost of gaining access to the internet for the first time.

Since the 1970s, states have provided estimates for how much people spend on heating and cooling each month to reduce the burden on beneficiaries of having to track down bills for heating and cooling, electricity, trash collection and other monthly utilities that can fluctuate throughout the year.

Under the new rule, the Agriculture Department would set a fixed allowance for heating and cooling costs based on average utility costs in each state -- because "the degree of flexibility in current regulations causes inequities from state to state."

The department pointed to a study it conducted in 2017 which found that, in some states, overestimates of utility costs were giving some people too many food stamps, while in others, people were getting too few.

The changes "will have the harshest impact in Northern states where families pay a lot more in utilities during the winter months," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The average loss in benefits would be $31 a month, and the average gain would be $13 a month. Households could lose as much as $75 each month or gain up to $33.

"This latest proposal would take 568 million meals per year from the tables of families who need food assistance, forcing families struggling with hunger to choose between heating or cooling their homes and putting food on the table," Leone said.

Dean praised the department's recognition of internet access as essential for job-seekers and students as well as for participating in modern life, but she said, "There was no need to cut food assistance in order to offer those improvements."

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee's subcommittee on nutrition, said in a statement that the rule was "only the latest in a long list of planned cuts to critical assistance working families count on to provide for their basic necessities and put food on the table."

"Instead of declaring a war on poverty, this president has declared war on our most vulnerable citizens," she said.

A Section on 10/05/2019

Print Headline: USDA proposes cutting $4.5B in food stamp aid

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