Tuesday, June 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The number of Nevadans who receive food stamp assistance doubled during the recession. Now, federal spending on food stamps — the largest part of the farm bill being considered in Congress — is set to go down, even as Nevadans’ dependence on food stamps continues to rise.
The picture of the food stamp spike in Nevada is framed by the recession: About 145,000 Nevadans were collecting food stamps in fiscal 2007; in March of this year, the government counted almost 354,000 recipients statewide.
But while Nevada’s lawmakers have championed extending public benefits — such as unemployment checks — that help the state’s most recession-stricken residents, when it comes to food stamps, they’re not taking a similar stand.
Food stamps have become highly politicized in this campaign cycle, with several Republicans mocking President Barack Obama as “the food stamp president” for the increase in food stamp use that occurred during his tenure in the White House.
While Nevada’s Republican representatives haven’t joined in that refrain, each has voted in favor of major cuts to spending on the food stamp program in the past few weeks. Under the changes supported by Nevada’s Republican lawmakers, the $768 billion in food stamp spending expected over the next decade would be cut by between $280 billion and $322 billion.
Last week, the Senate shot down legislation that would have capped annual food stamp spending. The legislation in question also sought to convert the food stamp, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, into block grants to be distributed by the states.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller voted to proceed with that legislation, but his spokesman later denied there was anything in the measure that suggested Nevada’s food stamp recipients would see their benefits reduced if it had passed.
“You’re making the assumption that money equals people. Sometimes you can have a better delivery in a more efficient way,” said Heller spokesman Stewart Bybee. “There is, based on the way that the amendment is written, no reason to believe that less people would be served ... Allowing the states to craft their own program to best meet the needs of their residents, avoiding fraud in the system and trying to make things more efficient is what the goal is here.”
There is good reason to tackle overspending. Food stamps are supposed to be available only to households at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. But people can apply for food stamps on the basis of receiving other kinds of federal assistance, such as heating help or welfare. Such programs calculate eligibility differently, so people earning more than 130 percent of the poverty line can sometimes end up receiving food aid.
According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, there’s at least $26 billion that can be saved from SNAP overpayments in the next 10 years. The Senate Democrats’ proposal on food stamps doesn’t slash that much though; their plan cuts $4 billion by weeding abusers from the system.
The House has yet to vote on changes to the food stamp program in its version of the farm bill. But Nevada Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei did vote to approve $36 billion in cuts this spring in the context of a broader bill to set budget levels.
Nevada’s Republican representatives maintain those spending cuts will only address cases of waste, fraud and abuse.
“There are many Nevadans who are suffering and need assistance during these difficult economic times,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Heck. “He has voted to increase funding for SNAP and believes we need to eliminate fraudulent eligibility claims so that we are providing benefits to those who truly need assistance.”
In Nevada, however, the government estimates that all those who truly need assistance aren’t getting it even as the program stands.
While Nevada has seen its food stamp caseload spike and its poverty rate rise during the recession, average dependency on the program is lower than in other states. Thirteen percent of Nevadans receive SNAP benefits, but only 70 percent of those eligible for benefits actually claim them — one of the lowest subscription rates in the country.