State should enact plan to retain food stamp benefits

The governors of seven states have found a legitimate way to mitigate the $8.6 billion reduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps, and in our state as Basic Food — in the farm bill passed by Congress this year.

We hope Gov. Jay Inslee will decide to join his gubernatorial colleagues, even though it will cost Washington many times more than other states.

A more compassionate Congress decided years ago that low-income families shouldn’t have to decide between eating and heating their homes. It allowed any household receiving aid from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) — even $1 per year — to qualify for the highest income offset used in determining food stamp eligibility.

The new farm bill signed by President Obama raises the threshold for eligibility to $20 in LIHEAP assistance, thus reducing food stamp benefits for millions of people. That’s how Congress expected to save $8.6 billion.

But Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy realized that if he increased LIHEAP assistance to $20.01, families would not lose their food stamps. By spending $1.4 million, low-income Connecticut families would keep $66 million in federal SNAP funding.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has called these actions to maintain food assistance to at least some of each state’s poorest people “fraud” and “cheating” the system. Boehner is wrong. Governors are simply playing by the rules.

House Republicans don’t get heartburn when corporations or wealthy individuals take advantage of breaks available within the tax code. States are doing the same thing.

Congress can attempt to change the rules whenever it wants, but until then it can’t fault governors for using the system to support their states’ low-income population.

Unfortunately, this is a more difficult problem in the state of Washington.

We have been more generous in extending the $1 annual LIHEAP assistance. While states such as Oregon have provided the LIHEAP aid only to households that didn’t qualify for the highest income offset, Washington has provided it to all households.

Raising the LIHEAP aid from $1 to $20.01 affects about 100,000 households in Oregon, compared with 600,000 in Washington. Oregon will spend $2 million to retain $56 million in food stamp benefits, while Washington would need to spend more than $14 million to prevent losing $70 million.

We think it’s a worthwhile investment.

More than 1 million state residents receive food stamp aid. Almost 40 percent of them are children under the age of 18. About half of the parents receiving aid have jobs, but work for low hourly wages. Another 10 percent of food stamp recipients are senior citizens.

Washington’s average benefit in 2013 amounted to $4.25 per day. That doesn’t go far, and provides only a minimum of food security.

The governor may make a decision after meeting with appropriate state agencies later this month. It will be difficult to find $14.5 million in a sparse state budget, but helping people keep food on the table is the right thing to do.