When Andres Gonzalez’s mother lost her job two years ago, the former student at South Texas College applied for food stamps, a federal aid program for the poor.
"It gave me more time to focus on looking for work and going to school, instead of having to worry about where I’m going to get my next meal," said Gonzalez, 24, who left the nutrition assistance program earlier this year after he found work as a warehouse supervisor in McAllen, Texas.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives view the aid more skeptically, arguing it’s rife with waste and abuse. Legislation passed the chamber yesterday that would cut $39 billion from nutrition programs over a decade, a roughly 5 percent reduction that would end food-stamp benefits for 3.8 million Americans next year.
The vote came a day after the release of new U.S. Census Bureau data showing 46.5 million people living in poverty, close to 15 percent of the population and near a two-decade high.
During the debate, Republicans cited the example of a surfer in California who said he used food stamps to buy lobster. They also said the aid programs, which have expanded rapidly since the economic downturn, are too often viewed as a permanent government subsidy rather than short-term relief.
"The reforms made by this bill will put people on the path to self-sufficiency and independence," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, before the vote. ‘
The vote was close -- 217 Republicans supported it, while all 195 Democrats and 15 Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, opposed it.
Opponents, who had brought in soup-kitchen leaders and a celebrity, Tom Colicchio from television’s "Top Chef," to attack the bill, said the measure was "heartless."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the legislation amounted to "snatching food out of the hands" of the poor. The Nevada Democrat said the House would do better to vote on a Senate-passed bill, which he said saves $23 billion over a decade, including $4 billion from the food-stamp program, "without forcing needy children to skip meals."
Lawmakers next must figure out how to merge the House and Senate bills, which also deal with farm subsidies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 47.7 million people received benefits under its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, in June 2013. That compares with 41.2 million people who got the aid in June 2009.
The cuts in the House measure would come through reducing waivers on work requirements and time limits for childless adults, as well as by restricting eligibility gained from enrolling in other social-welfare programs. Enrollment cuts would taper off after fiscal 2014, averaging 2.8 million a year through 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Beneficiaries would face a requirement that they register as looking for work under the bill, and take any suitable job offered. Under the measure, Texas could have required Gonzalez, before he got his warehouse position, to submit to regular drug testing as a condition of getting the aid, or added stricter rules on employment similar to those of welfare programs.
Another provision of the bill would trim assistance for home heating and cooling, cutting benefits for about 850,000 people by roughly $90 a month, according to the budget office.
The CBO forecasts a roughly 30 percent decline in food- stamp benefits over the next 10 years if current policies don’t change. The House cuts would be about 5 percent more than that.
The Republican measure would also block lottery winners from receiving food stamps. It also doesn’t extend a stimulus program that increased benefits, set to expire later this year.
The bill "will bring more integrity to the program," Representative Kristi Noem, a South Dakota Republican, said in an interview. "When you look at the fact that this program was initiated and started to help those in need for a short period of time, this program will certainly do that after the reforms we put in place today."
When food aid is discussed on Capitol Hill, the issue is entwined with farm subsidies because since the 1970s the two types of programs have been combined in a single piece of legislation, marrying the interests of rural and urban lawmakers.
The Senate wants to continue that marriage. Cantor and other House Republicans prefer to deal with food aid for the poor separately from subsidies for agriculture. The House bill sets food and farm subsidies on different authorization timelines, a move that would permanently divorce them.
The Senate passed a bill that seeks to make changes to federal crop-support and nutrition programs, including the food stamp cuts. That compares with fourfold bigger food-aid reductions in the House bill and $135 billion proposed in a budget the chamber passed that was written by 2012 vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
"These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work," the White House said in a statement against the bill that threatened a veto should it get to President Barack Obama’s desk.
Democrats in Congress have said they won’t allow that to happen, and Republicans also said they expect this to be a starting point for House-Senate negotiations.
Aides to House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Cantor said they didn’t have a timeline for when those discussions might formally begin. The latest extension of farm laws dealt with by the bills begins to run out Sept. 30.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said passage of the House food-aid measure would make it harder for the House and Senate to agree to a comprehensive farm-and-food bill.
Some advocates for programs to fight hunger are rooting for those talks to fail, which they say would force lawmakers to extend current policies.
"My focus is on hungry people and I’d rather this thing go down in flames than to see hungry people lose benefits," Colicchio, the "Top Chef" host, said in an interview.
As for Gonzalez, he’s trying to settle his debts before returning to school. While he doesn’t need food stamps now, the Texan said he’s grateful the program was there when he did.
Having food stamps, he said, "made me feel a little bit safer."
The number of the House food-aid bill is H.R. 3102. The Senate farm bill is S. 954.
--Editors: Bennett Roth, Ted Bunker.
To contact the reporters on this story: Derek Wallbank in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Laura Tillman in Texas at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at firstname.lastname@example.org