WASHINGTON -- Once hailed as the savior of food stamps, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts has introduced a bill to cut $36 billion from the federal aid program over 10 years.
Up for re-election in 2014, the Republican says hes trying to offer an alternative to both a budget proposal on the right that would effectively dismantle the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and another on the left that offers no savings at all.
Roberts said in an interview that the program must reform now or face more drastic changes down the road. We have a program that could self-implode if were not careful. I dont want to see that happen, he said.
But critics complain that Roberts legislation would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of needy Americans at a time when many still struggle to make ends meet in a weakened economy.
Every one of the provisions in the bill would have detrimental impact on those who need help, said Joanna Sebelien, chief resource officer for Harvesters: Community Food Network, a Kansas City, Mo., food bank. Its just so, so frustrating.
Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the anti-hunger program spent $78 billion to deliver food assistance to 45 million Americans in an average month in fiscal year 2011, up from $33 billion spent on 26 million Americans in 2005.
To be eligible for food stamps, a households net income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $19,100 a year for a family of three.
Roberts acknowledges that his bill would cut benefits to some people, but he said some of the measures put in place in recent years to allow more people to receive food stamps ought to be rolled back. His legislation would repair the food stamp programs bloated bureaucracy while ensuring that people who need benefits the most continue to receive them, the senator said. I just want to restore integrity to the program, he said. . . . Youve got a lot of situations where folks are really gaming the system, and thats not right.
In 1995, Roberts helped rescue food stamps when fellow Republicans in Congress tried to end the federal anti-hunger program. As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Roberts led a rebellion of like-minded GOP representatives who balked at a proposal by their partys leadership that would have replaced the food stamp program with lump sum payments to the states.
Roberts helped push through changes the following year that reduced food stamp spending by $26 billion over six years by prohibiting non-citizens from receiving benefits and restricting able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of eligibility unless they were working at least half time.
Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, called it disheartening to see a senator with a history of championing the food stamp program recommend such deep cuts in his new legislation. Its a sledgehammer solution to what I think is a hammer and nail problem, Dean said.
Roberts argues that his bill is consistent with his lifetime of work battling hunger, not a departure from it. With everyone in Washington looking for ways to cut spending now, no program not even food stamps can be considered immune, he said.