Cuts to food stamps will only hit 4 states

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Cuts to food stamps will only hit 4 states
A sign on a frozen food case indicates that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, U.S., on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. Dollar General is scheduled to announce earnings results on Dec. 5. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 27: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., right, and D.C. resident Vanessa Sherrie shop at the Safeway on 14th St., SE, to kick off the National Food Stamp Challenge. The challenge asks participants spend $31.50 on a week's worth of groceries, which is the average allotment of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly called Food Stamps. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters for passage of a new agriculture law rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. The farm legislation funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw-materials costs for companies. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Members of Progressive Democrats of America and other activists hold a rally in front of Rep. Henry Waxman's office on June 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The protestors were asking the congressman to vote against a House farm bill that would reduce federal spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $20.5 billion and affect food stamps and other services for the poor. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Gracie Shannon-Sanborn, 5, holds a sign as she joins her father Allen Sanborn (L) and members of Progressive Democrats of America and other activists as they hold a rally in front of Rep. Henry Waxman's office on June 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The protestors were asking the congressman to vote against a House farm bill that would reduce federal spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $20.5 billion and affect food stamps and other services for the poor. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 01: Volunteers sort carrots at the SF-Marin Food Bank on May 1, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Food banks are bracing for higher food costs and an increased demand for food from the needy as food prices are skyrocketing due to a reduction in food stamps and drought conditions in several states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 01: A worker wraps a pallet of donated produce at the SF-Marin Food Bank on May 1, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Food banks are bracing for higher food costs and an increased demand for food from the needy as food prices are skyrocketing due to a reduction in food stamps and drought conditions in several states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 7: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Farm Bill, or the the Agriculture Act of 2014, into law after speaking about the importance of the Farm Bill to America's economy at Michigan State University February 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Obama signed the largely bi-partisan legislation that reforms the farm insurance program and trims the food stamps by one percent. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 7: The stage sits ready for U.S. President Barack Obama to sign the Agriculture Act of 2014 into law in the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University February 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Obama will sign the largely bi-partisan legislation that reforms the farm insurance program and trims the food stamps by one percent. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: Brooklyn residents receive free food as part of a Bowery Mission outreach program on December 5, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Christan ministry says it have seen a spike in need since food stamps to low-income families were reduced in November with cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
BELLE GLADE, FL - APRIL 14: Yosef Muslet, a local business owner in Belle Glade says that he knows many seniors in the town that qualify for SNAP but will not apply. The sign (L) for food stamps shows that the program is administered with a credit card like payment system. He thinks some seniors think that food stamps are still stamps from a book that can be embarrassing when used. Many low-income seniors qualify to participate in the S.N.A.P. (food stamps) program but do not receive the benefit, often because they are too proud or unaware of it. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC- JULY 28: , Carl G. Purvenas-Smith (L) sells produce to Sunday Smith (C) and Vanessa Edwards at the Ward 8 Farmers Market Cooperative on Saturday, July 28th, 2012. Carl brings his produce from Terrapin Station Herb Farm in York, PA. Carl and several other farmers at the market accept cash, WIC coupons, food stamps, along with credit and debit cards. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., flanked by assistants, arrives to meet with other Farm Bill negotiators as they gather for a closed-door session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. There is agreement on many parts of the legislation but significant differences remain over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Temeka Williams, right, of Detroit, uses her bridge card tokens for a purchase from Elizabeth and Gary Lauber from Sweet Delights at the Farmer's Market in Detroit, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Tamika Ealy looks over the meat section at the K&G Food Mart in Detroit, Monday, May 8, 2006. Ealy, 22, said she tends to do most of her food shopping at the beginning of the month. In Michigan, as in most other states, the start of the month is when people get their food stamps and the aisles of K&G are flooded with shoppers. But as the weeks wear on, the traffic slows to a trickle. The drastic swings in customer traffic make it difficult to keep stores adequately staffed and stocked and wreak havoc on suppliers' delivery schedules, an association of small retailers and wholesalers says. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A sign on a frozen food case filled with ice cream and other desserts indicates that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, U.S., on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. Dollar General is scheduled to announce earnings results on Dec. 5. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In this photo taken Tuesday Oct. 1, 2013 volunteers gather food at the New Hampshire Food Bank in Manchester, N.H. to be delivered around the state. The temporary increase in food stamps also know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program expires Oct. 31, meaning for millions of Americans, the benefits that help them put food on the table every month won’t stretch as far as they have for the past four years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
PORTLAND, ME - NOVEMBER 23: Sindel Theberge, 7, points to a bag of Hershey's chocolate at at Mellen Street Market, which accepts EBT and food stamps, in Portland, ME on Monday, November 23, 2015. A new DHHS proposal is asking for a federal waiver to allow the department to ban purchase of junk food with EBT or food stamps. 'It's probably a good idea, it's not exactly nutritious to be buying candy,' Holly Plourde, Theberge's mother, said. (Photo by Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Cuts to the nation's food stamp program enacted this year are only affecting four states, far from the sweeping overhaul that Republicans had pushed, an Associated Press review has found.

As a result, it's unclear whether the law will realize the estimated $8.6 billion in savings over 10 years that the GOP had advertised.

A farm bill signed by President Barack Obama in February attempted to save money by scaling back what lawmakers called a loophole in the food stamp program that entitles low-income families to more food aid if they participate in a federal heating assistance program. States were giving some people as little as $1 a year in heating assistance so they could get more food aid. It's called "heat and eat."

Among the 16 states that allow the practice or some form of it, 12 governors have taken steps to avoid the food stamp cuts.

"Government's role is to help people help themselves, and these steps are necessary to help our most vulnerable residents and families meet their most basic needs," Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said when he announced his state's move earlier this year.

The farm bill was held up for more than two years as conservatives insisted on cutting the nation's food stamp program, which now serves 1 in 7 Americans at a cost of around $80 billion a year. The roughly 1 percent cut was a compromise between Republicans who had hoped for far larger cuts and Democrats who didn't want to see any cuts at all.

The states' workaround - mostly by Democratic governors - has infuriated Republicans who pushed the cuts. In March, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the states' moves "fraud." House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Upton, R-Mich., have asked the Obama administration to "hold states accountable" for dodging the cuts.

The governors say they are following the law while preserving crucial benefits for their neediest citizens.

The new law says that people can't get the higher food benefits unless they receive more than $20 a year in heating assistance, which lawmakers hoped would be too expensive for states to pay. But the governors in 12 states and the mayor of the District of Columbia have said they will find a way. Most will use federal heating assistance dollars. At least one state, California, will use its own money.

As of now, the cuts will only affect Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey and New Hampshire. All but New Hampshire have Republican governors.

There are about 1.8 million households that receive food stamps in those four states, out of almost 23 million households nationwide.

It's unclear exactly how many people will be affected. Officials in Wisconsin, New Jersey and New Hampshire said they don't track that number. Michigan officials say around 20 percent of the state's recipients, or around 170,000 households, participated in the "heat and eat" program and will see cuts.

Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Human Services, says the state didn't want to "create a new loophole even beyond the loophole that previously existed" and draw down federal heating benefits for others in the cold-weather state. He said the average decrease will be around $76 a month for a family of four, starting in November. That amount varies by state.

Terry Smith, director of New Hampshire's family assistance programs, said his state's decision "was not to deplete an already tenuous LIHEAP allocation in our state and take needed heat from people."

LIHEAP is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and it is paid to states as federal grants each year. New Hampshire did not give recipients $1 payments but did allow a LIHEAP application to qualify them for higher food benefits. The farm bill's change in policy will discontinue that practice.

The states that are using that federal heating assistance money to avoid the food stamp cuts say they believe they can do it without significantly reducing heating aid to others who need it, even without more money from the federal government. Peter Merrill, the deputy director of MaineHousing, says he estimates that maintaining the food stamp benefits will only reduce federal heating assistance payments to Maine residents by about $4 a year on average.

In Washington state, residents will see food stamp benefits reduced briefly, in November and December, due to a backlog in getting their computer systems running. A spokeswoman for the governor said the state will reinstate the higher heating assistance payments in January, once the backlog clears, and 200,000 residents will see their benefits go back up.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans say the states' decisions don't mean the farm bill cuts are obliterated. A GOP memo from the House Agriculture Committee staff notes that some states may reverse their decisions to avoid the cuts, especially as current recipients move off the rolls. And the Congressional Budget Office, which figures out how much bills cost, accounted for some states bowing out when coming up with its $8.6 billion estimate over 10 years. But the CBO hasn't said whether it accounted for high-population states like California, New York and Pennsylvania maintaining the higher food stamp benefits.

Other states that have dodged the cuts are Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Pat Baker of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on poverty issues, says the "heat and eat" recipients are often elderly or disabled, sometimes living in apartments where utilities are included but the rent is higher. "This would be a significant loss in nutrition benefits to the lowest-income and neediest residents," she says.

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