Three states are trying to get around a new minor reform Congress made to the food stamp program.
In the farm bill it passed earlier this month, Congress tightened a loophole dubbed “Heat and Eat” that has made it possible for states to artificially boost the amount of food stamp benefits a household receives.
Here’s how it works: Some food stamp households that receive Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits are automatically eligible for higher deductions on their utility bills. A higher deduction means eligibility for more food stamps. So some states had simply been mailing out LIHEAP checks for amounts as small as $1 to trigger the higher food stamp benefits.
Even liberal politicians, media outlets, and analysts agreed this loophole was problematic. Congress tightened this loophole in the farm bill—but didn’t close it—by requiring that a household receive $20 or more in LIHEAP to be eligible for the larger utility deduction and subsequently higher food stamp benefits.
But now some state leaders are continuing to perpetuate—and even celebrate—this loophole. For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced earlier this week that the state would fork out $6 million in state LIHEAP benefits to 300,000 households so they could continue to draw the hundreds of millions of federal food stamp dollars through the loophole. Connecticut and Pennsylvania are following suit.
Because 95 percent of food stamp funding is federal, states are not accountable for most of the cost and thus have no problem with spending more on food stamps. In fact, most of the welfare spending on the government’s roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs is federal. States have paid an increasingly smaller amount of welfare over the decades.
The LIHEAP loophole is just one problem with food stamps, but the program is in need of much greater reform. Congress failed to take the opportunity during the farm bill debate to reform food stamps. Even the small step they took appears to be failing. Food stamps is in major need of reform and Congress shouldn’t wait until the next farm bill debate to get this program back on track.