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Associated Press

Farm bill debate rages over cuts to food stamps

WASHINGTON –The 1,000-page “farm bill” being debated in the Senate is somewhat of a misnomer. Four of every five dollars in it – roughly $80 billion a year – go for grocery bills for one of every seven Americans through food stamps.

Republicans say Congress could cut the cost $2 billion a year by just closing a pair of loopholes that some states use to award benefits to people who otherwise might not qualify.

“This is more than just a financial issue. It is a moral issue,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of several Republicans pushing for cuts in spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP.

The program has swelled from 28 million to 46 million participants and its costs have doubled in the past four years. The recession and slow recovery have increased the number of people unemployed over the same period from 8 million to 12 million.

The Agriculture Department credits the program with keeping about 5 million Americans out of poverty every year. Before 2004, people received paper stamps or coupons worth $1, $5 or $10. Since then, all 50 states have moved to debit-type cards that allow recipients to authorize transferring their benefits from a federal account to retailer accounts.

Democrats led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are resisting a proposal by Agriculture Committee leaders in both parties to trim a modest $250 million from the program each year by cracking down on abuses.

They say that would deprive about half a million households losing an average $90 a month in food aid.

The Republican-controlled House, which has yet to write its own farm bill, is certain to demand greater food stamp cuts, too. Finding common ground with the Democratic-led Senate could be key to whether Congress can pass a 1,000-page bill that also makes fundamental changes in farm subsidies before the current legislation bill expires at the end of September.

Sessions points out that the federal government now spends twice as much on food stamps as it does on fixing the nation’s roads and bridges, and that SNAP is now the government’s second-largest federal welfare program.

To qualify, households, except those with elderly or disabled members, must have gross incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line. The Agriculture Department, which runs the program, says the average monthly benefit per person as of last November was $134.15. As for helping the economy, it calculates that each dollar in benefits generates $1.72 in economic activity, including 16 cents for farmers who grow the food.

The Senate last week rejected an amendment by Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have saved $322 billion over 10 years by cutting it $45 billion a year and turning spending decisions over to the states.

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