ABC News' Huma Khan reports: Congress is under pressure to cut the rapidly rising costs of the federal government’s food stamps program at a time when a record number of Americans are relying on it.
The House Appropriations Committee today will review the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture that includes $71 billion for the agency’s “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” That’s $2 billion less than what President Obama requested but a 9 percent increase from 2011, which, critics say, is too large given the sizeable budget deficit.
A record number of Americans – about 14 percent – now rely on the federal government’s food stamps program and its rapid expansion in recent years has become a politically explosive topic.
More than 44.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits in March, an 11 percent increase from one year ago and nearly 61 percent higher than the same time four years ago.
Nearly 21 million households are reliant on food stamps.
Opponents of the program argue that money from the food stamps budget – with what they call its increasingly lax requirements – needs to be shifted to other programs such as education and child nutrition. The program’s supporters argue that at a time of economic decline, such welfare programs are even more important to try to keep Americans from spiraling into poverty.
The cost of the food stamps program has increased rapidly since it was established by Congress in 1964.
It cost taxpayers more than $68 billion last year, double the amount in 2007.
Nutrition assistance now accounts for more than half – or about 67 percent – of the USDA’s budget, compared with 26 percent in 1980. That shift in focus, critics say, is ineffective because it hasn’t put a dent in poverty or hunger in the United States while taking away money from other programs, specifically agricultural programs that should be the main focus of the agency.
Even “at a time of prosperity, we have increased the amount of money we are spending for people to buy food,” said Harold Brown, an agriculture scientist and adjunct scholar at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “The appropriation of money by Congress has never solved poverty or the resulting problems of poverty. When President Johnson declared war on poverty a half century ago nearly, we thought we saw the end of it as far as food and nutrition goes. For the Department of Agriculture, we only saw the beginning.”
The Republicans’ 2012 budget plan proposes changing SNAP from an entitlement to a block-grant program that would be tailored for each individual state, much like their proposal for Medicaid. States would no longer receive open-ended subsidies and the aid would be contingent on work or job training. It would also limit funding for the program.
The president’s 2012 budget, however, goes in a completely opposite direction. It aims to make requirements less stringent by temporarily suspending for one year the time limit for certain age groups without dependents. The president also suggested restoring benefit cuts that were included in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill last year.
UPDATE: Democrats are aggressively pushing back at the cuts that they argue constitute an attack on the poor.
"It is absolutely necessary to take a long hard look at government spending to avoid wasting any taxpayers’ dollars, but time and time again, Republicans wrongfully make their cuts on the backs of poor and working class Americans," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement this afternoon.
ABC News John Parkinson and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.