Spending on the federal food stamp program has gradually declined over the past two years as congressional Republicans and many states tightened eligibility requirements and the economy improved to the point that many dropped off the rolls after landing jobs.
More than 46 million Americans had been on food stamps in the depths of the recession or nearly one in every seven people. A three-percent drop in the multi-billion-dollar federal program resulted in 3.1 million fewer Americans receiving food subsidies under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in January 2016 than the year before, according to Treasury Department data.
As Republicans take control of the White House and Congress this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and other GOP leaders are signaling the possibility of a major welfare reform bill in 2017 or 2018, including a fresh look at the food stamp program and its spending levels. Ryan has proposed converting food stamps to a block grant and allowing states to determine how to spend a diminished level of funding.
While lawmakers are certain to insist on stiff work requirements for able-bodied recipients and other eligibility rules, Republican lawmakers in two states -- Maine and Arkansas -- are eying additional potential savings by targeting beneficiaries who spend part of their monthly food subsidy on junk food and sodas, according to the Daily Signal.
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The Obama administration's Department of Agriculture previously rejected waiver requests from nine other states – including California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont – to prohibit beneficiaries from buying junk food with their food stamps.
But with a new Republican Trump administration taking charge Jan. 20, GOP officials in Maine and Arkansas believe they stand a much better chance of getting their waiver request approved by the USDA.
The push is being made with an eye toward improving public health and reducing health care costs as well as government food subsidies. State officials in Maine and Arkansas say that the ban on food stamp purchases of junk food would reduce their states' obesity rates, contain Medicaid costs for low-income people and help ensure that beneficiaries use the program for its original intent – namely insuring a healthy diet for low-income families.
Proponents say the goal is to save lives and reduce health care costs by improving people's diets, and not slashing overall spending or reducing the food stamp rolls. But depending on how the regulations are written, people caught purchasing forbidden junk food and soda could be suspended or even dropped from the program. Moreover, food stamp advocates such as the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities say the program already improves the diets and health of women and children.
Last year, the House Budget Committee adopted a budget plan that would slash food stamp spending by more than $150 billion – or more than 20 percent – over the coming decade and change the program into block grants. CBPP analysts warn that cuts of that magnitude would force millions of low-income families out of the program and reduce the monthly benefits for those who remain on the rolls.
Arkansas ranks sixth nationally among all states in the rate of obesity, according to a 2016 national survey, posing a public health crisis among residents and a huge financial burden on the state and federal government. Medicaid and Medicare finance nearly 40 percent of the state's alarming $1.25 billion annual obesity-related medical costs, according to a 2015 report by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
Mary Bentley, a Republican member of the Arkansas Assembly, introduced a bill in early December to restrict what food stamp recipients are allowed to purchase. Although the bill doesn't specifically bar the purchase of junk food and soda, Bentley told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that potato chips, soda and candy would be among the items that would be banned in the waiver request submitted to the USDA.
"Chips and Cokes and candy bars," Bentley told the newspaper as she enumerated the prohibited food. "People can go buy Red Bull with food stamps, and that's not encouraging health."
Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services plans to submit a waiver request to the USDA shortly after Trump takes office. If the request is granted, Maine would be allowed to prohibit food stamp recipients from using their debit cards to buy sugary items such as candy and beverages.
Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, told the Daily Signal that while individuals are free to use their own money as they see fit, tax-payer funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance should be "directed based upon the policy intent of the program."
Maine's Medicaid program spent more than $1.5 million between October 2014 and October 2015 on medical claims related to obesity, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services.
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