By Paul C. Barton | Tennessean Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Tessa Hyde, 41, a regular at the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry on Main Street, says her three daughters -- ages 2, 14 and 18 -- know the taste of canned vegetables all too well. Canned fruit cocktail is another staple.
A reliance on canned goods helps Hyde stretch her $668 in federal food stamp benefits through the month. She's also familiar with the multitude of ways ground hamburger and chicken can make dishes go further.
"We eat lots of spaghetti, sloppy joes, that kind of stuff," she said.
While she has done warehouse work and office cleaning, Hyde is currently unemployed and lives in subsidized housing. Her only other income, she says, is $200 a month in child support.
"If I didn't have food stamps, I don't know what I would do," she said.
When Congress returns to work in September, it will confront big questions about food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Claims by Republicans and conservative think tanks that the program is rife with fraud and waste have echoed throughout this year's debate on the farm bill, the legislation that revamps Agriculture Department programs every five to six years. Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation would make major cuts to food stamps, the House version most severely.
The program's defenders, on the other hand, point to poverty being at a 50-year high and Government Accountability Office studies showing food stamp benefits paid in error to be at an all-time low -- 4.36 percent. On Friday, the Agriculture Department announced new efforts to combat fraud even as it said that no more than 1 percent of food stamp transactions fall into that category.
1 in 7 Americans
Some 46 million people -- about one in seven Americans -- receive food stamps during any one month, and the program cost $75.7 billion in 2011. Only Medicaid is more expensive among welfare programs. In Tennessee, food stamp benefits cost the federal government $2.04 billion in 2011.
In the past five years, with the economy hitting the skids, the cost has increased 128 percent, and the number of recipients has increased 70 percent.
In Tennessee, 1.27 million get benefits in any one month, a 47 percent increase over five years. The average monthly benefit in the state is $133.82, slightly below the national figure, Agriculture Department statistics show.
Earlier this summer, the Senate approved a farm bill that cut food stamps by $4.5 billion over the next decade. The House Agriculture Committee followed with a version that cut $16 billion over that time.
While most doubt Congress will finalize a new farm bill this year, election-year politics promise to keep food stamps and other social safety-net issues front and center as the debate rages about government spending levels. Republicans already have made an issue of the sharp increases in the number of recipients and benefit costs.
"Republicans are opposed to most giveaway programs. They believe it runs counter to the work ethic, encourages laziness, social dependency, even fraudulent activities," said Stephen J. Wayne, political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Food stamps are also an easier program to pick on than Medicare, said David B. Kendall, policy analyst at the Third Way, a moderate Washington think tank.
"They want to show they are tough on the spending," he said. "They are left with programs for the poor."
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich earlier this year called President Barack Obama "the food stamp president." Some in the Tennessee congressional delegation also like to associate Obama with the program.
"President Obama's Food Stamp program has grown to a projected level of $85 billion in 2012, compared to less than $20 billion over a decade ago," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, said in a statement.
"We should work to return this program to its original compassionate mission of providing temporary assistance to those who are most in need."
And Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, said: "Since President Obama took office, spending on food stamps has increased by 100 percent. This is primarily because of the president's failed economic policies that have grown government at the expense of jobs and private sector growth. Another factor is the administration's efforts to maximize the number of people receiving welfare support. Their focus should be on targeting resources to those who truly need assistance and to be vigilant in stopping fraud and abuse."
The office of Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, declined to comment, saying the issue was still in flux.
But the rise in food stamp use corresponds with the sharp job losses and increases in poverty that followed the financial crisis of 2008.
"The increase in the number of people eligible for and receiving benefits between 2007 and 2011 has been driven primarily by the weak economy," said a study released in April by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The basic qualifications for food stamps involve having a gross income of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level and net income -- after deductions for items such as child care -- of no more than 100 percent of poverty. Assets cannot exceed $2,000. For households with an elderly or disabled member, the limit is $3,250.
Applicants automatically qualify if they are already receiving cash assistance from a program such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income. This is called "categorical eligibility."
Since 2008, the Agriculture Department has been encouraging states to adopt "broad-based categorical eligibility" standards that allow those who show they receive even the slightest amount of non-cash assistance from TANF to be accepted, as long as they meet income requirements. Something as simple as reading a TANF brochure or calling a 1-800 number can suffice.
This "streamlined" qualifying process, often accompanied by the elimination of asset tests, was written into Agriculture Department regulations after the welfare reforms of 1996, championed by Republicans and then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
Tennessee, however, is among 10 states that have not adopted the more relaxed standards, even though the federal government bears 100 percent of the benefit costs and half of the administrative costs associated with food stamps. The state Department of Human Services continues to study the issue, said Richard Dobbs, head of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Tennessee.
Conservatives want changes
Some advocates for the hungry in the Nashville area would like to see asset tests eliminated.
To force people to spend what little assets they have in order to qualify for food stamps "seems counterintuitive if you are trying to bring people out of poverty," said Jennifer Bailey, in charge of outreach at Community Food Advocates of Nashville.
The relaxed standards have become yet another issue for conservatives, who say they allow people who have no income but millions of dollars in assets to qualify for benefits.
The House Agriculture Committee, which includes Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, said in a report that elimination of broad-based categorical eligibility is among the "common-sense reforms" of the program that must be achieved. DesJarlais supported the measure.
But liberal think tanks such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities say such changes would push 2 million to 3 million people off the program, "mostly low-income working families with children and seniors."
An Aug. 2 GAO study said the relaxed standards increased benefit costs less than 1 percent in 2010. But it also warned that they threaten the program's "integrity" and were likely to result in the awarding of more benefits in error.
Congressional Republicans also want to prohibit "traditional college students" and lottery winners from getting food stamps, although the evidence that such practices are widespread is spotty and anecdotal. They also want more enforcement of laws against food stamp trafficking, a more common problem among recipients. That practice involves trading the electronic debit cards that recipients use at grocery stores for cash.
Conservative think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation say changes should go much further. They'd like to see a requirement that recipients work, or at least look for work.
"A substantial portion of this population is capable of working," said Robert Rector, domestic policy analyst at Heritage.
As it is, he said, those who are working have an incentive to hide it so that their income does not exceed the qualifying limits.
But Bailey of Community Food Advocates said the food stamp recipients she sees are either working or looking for work.
And she echoes the government's finding that the notion that the program is rife with abuse is "way overstated."
What's not overstated, Bailey and other advocates say, is the havoc wreaked by the economy. "Some of these (recipients) have been middle class their entire life," she said.
Hyde, the mother of three who receives food stamps, said she's looking hard for work. When she hears people suggest otherwise about food stamp recipients in general, she said, "It makes me angry."
She also said Congress should keep one thing in mind as it continues to debate the program. It's not the unemployed who would suffer most from cuts.
"It helps feed the children," she said.
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com.