The 2014 Farm Bill may have left the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fairly intact, but several states are already planning to skirt a change in the bill by increasing heating payments to allow residents to claim higher food benefit amounts, the USDA Economic Research Service says in a new report.
The process, called "heat and eat," is when states issue nominal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits – usually between $1 and $5 – to trigger larger food benefit checks.
The latest farm bill, however, required that states pay out more than $20 in LIHEAP benefits to trigger the additional food benefits.
Related: Governors Push Back on SNAP Cuts
The Congressional Budget Office estimated initially that this change would reduce SNAP expenditures by $8.6 billion over 10 years – a 1% decline in overall SNAP program costs. It was also estimated to reduce the SNAP benefit levels of the 850,000 affected households by an estimated average of $90 per month.
But now, states are preparing to take on the extra cost for heating assistance to ensure residents don't have to choose between heating and food.
According to the ERS, 11 of the 16 states that participated in a "heat and eat" type program have already increased or indicated that they plan to increase LIHEAP payments to over $20, in order to avoid the SNAP benefit cuts.
In New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February proposed the state use $6 million from its Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to increase the Home Energy Assistance Program benefit of SNAP recipients for whom heat is included in the rent.
Related: President Signs 2014 Farm Bill
By receiving the higher HEAP benefit, the New York households would remain eligible for the highest SNAP allowance for their energy costs, which enables them to continue receiving SNAP benefits at the level for which they are currently eligible, Cuomo's office said.
Though the provision was intended to curb nominal "heat and eat" benefits and result in savings, the states' move means that its ultimate effect is uncertain, concludes ERS.
Read more on the 2014 Farm Bill's SNAP changes in the latest Amber Waves feature, 2014 Farm Act Maintains SNAP Eligibility Guidelines and Funds New Initiatives.