Their opinion: Shoring up the safety net


The Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton (Mass.), March 20

It isn't fraud to want to protect children from going hungry.

When Congress passed a new five-year farm bill last month, it cut roughly $8 billion over the next decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Even so, the House allowed a provision to remain that continues a higher level of food stamps benefits to families, provided they receive at least $20 in fuel assistance. Before, that trigger for added benefits was just $1 in fuel aid.

Lawmakers in Washington raised the bar to limit participation. And now, Massachusetts is helping poor families up and over that new threshold.

In doing so, the state joins seven others in extending fuel aid to families so they can qualify for about $80 a month in food stamps they stood to lose under the new bill's provisions.

House Speaker John Boehner says states like Massachusetts are gaming the system -- he used the word "cheat" -- and are circumventing the intent of Congress. Several congressional committees are watching developments and the body may try to cut off this means of qualifying for added assistance.

What Massachusetts is doing isn't against the law. It is following the terms of the new farm bill. If the House had wanted to cut another $3 billion from the food stamps program over a decade, it could have ended the fuel aid link to benefits -- often referred to as "heat and eat" programs and used in 17 states since about 2007.

It did not, nor should it have. Rising fuel costs take money out of household budgets and leave less resources for food purchases. The two expenses are clearly connected.

The move to provide the minimum of $20 in fuel aid will help 163,000 families here not lose a big piece of their monthly food stamps allocation. The state is paying for the extra fuel assistance through $3 million in federal aid. It is important to note that this assistance is a key part of providing decent nutrition to children. The average monthly benefit for families as of November was $257, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Food costs are projected to increase 3.5 percent this year, the biggest jump in three years. By restoring lost eligibility for full food stamps benefits, the state shores up a small part of the safety net.


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