SID SALTER: Cochran stands in center of food assistance battle

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – In Mississippi, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the federal program that my generation knew as “food stamps” – was feeding some 650,744 people in our state in January of this year.
For Mississippi’s congressional delegation, it is a particularly thorny issue and perhaps for none more than Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran – who has been whipsawed from the left for voting to make “deep cuts to the safety net” for Mississippi’s poor by groups like the liberal Center for American Progress and from the right by conservatives who feel his votes don’t go far enough in cutting the food stamp program.
As a matter of perspective, the entire federal food stamp program for all 50 states only served 561,261 people in April, 1965. In 2000, the program had grown nationally to 17.2 million recipients. By January of this year, the program was serving 46.4 million Americans. Federal spending for the program is forecast to reach $82 billion in 2013.
On Capitol Hill, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee voted recently to cut $33 billion over 10 years from SNAP. Back in October, the U.S. Senate, on a vote of 41 to 58, rejected Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) amendment to a House resolution that would have eliminated states’ option to apply categorical eligibility rules in SNAP as a means to cut spending. Categorical eligibility is a provision that allows states to make households automatically eligible for food stamps if they receive other federal benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or counseling services.
Cochran joined with a handful of Republican senators in opposing the change. This week, the National Conference of State Legislatures sent a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee opposing the intent of the Sessions amendment and supporting Cochran’s position on SNAP.
But for Mississippi’s senior member of Congress, SNAP is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” political and policy position.
Mississippi’s dubious status as the poorest state in America makes this state ground zero – on a per capita basis – for the SNAP program. A staggering 21 percent of Mississippi’s population participates in the program, just over one-in-five Mississippians and the highest percentage in the nation. What’s the state of the SNAP program in Mississippi today?
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Nutrition Service data for federal Fiscal Year 2011, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, SNAP program monthly participating has steady increased from 426,116 Mississippians in FY 2007 to an annual average of 622,596 Mississippians. Household utilization of the SNAP program had increased from 178,755 in FY 2007 to 273,029 in FY 2011.
The total SNAP benefits paid in Mississippi increased from $443.8 million in FY 2007 to $921.1 million in FY 2011. Average monthly per household SNAP benefits in Mississippi increased from $206.87 in FY 2007 to $281.14 per month by FY 2011. Average monthly per person SNAP benefits in Mississippi rose from $86.79 in FY 2007 to $123.29 monthly in FY 2011.
That translates to an average weekly per household SNAP benefit of $47.74 week in FY 2007 increasing to $64.88 per week in FY 2011 – and an average weekly per person SNAP benefit of $20.03 in FY 2007 increasing to $28.45 per week in FY 2011.
The numbers make the predictable “welfare queen” horror stories about SNAP recipients pushing grocery carts full of porterhouse steaks and other fine foods less and less credible. But the numbers also make serious efforts – like Cochran’s – to bring sanity back to SNAP policy even more difficult.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.