By Marcy Stamper
Effects of the almost $1 trillion that will be spent over the next 10 years as a result of the Agricultural Act (in negotiations for so long that people still call it the Farm Bill) will trickle down to local residents with no connection to farming — helping the county government pay for law-enforcement and emergency services but making life a bit harder for some of the area’s neediest residents.
Some of the more than 5,700 people in Okanogan County who receive food stamps may see further reductions in their Basic Food benefits because the new law counts assistance for heating bills as income.
This change could affect one-third of the households receiving food benefits in Washington, cutting their monthly food-stamp benefit by an average of $90, according to John Wiley, media relations manager for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Counting heating benefits as income cut about $8 billion in funding for the food stamp program—officially known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—nationwide over the next 10 years, according to a report on the act, but previous versions of the bill contained much steeper cuts to the food program.
Even with this reduction, SNAP and other nutrition programs account for more than three-quarters of the spending in the act.
The connection between heating and food assistance was called the “heat-and-eat loophole” by the House-Senate Conference Committee in a summary of the act. The committee said the new legislation closes this loophole that “artificially increase[d] benefit levels when states provide[d] nominal LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] assistance.”
These are “the first reforms to SNAP since the welfare reforms of 1996,” according to the committee’s summary. Other provisions in the act that affect the SNAP benefits include protections against fraud—ensuring that people do not collect benefits in more than one state and that benefits do not go to people in the country illegally or to traditional college students or the deceased. It also prohibits the U.S. Department of Agriculture from spending money on advertising to promote the food-stamp program and increases assistance to food banks.
About 28 percent of Okanogan County households receive food stamps, getting an average of $221 a month. In Washington, the average benefit is the same, but only 15 percent of the population receives the benefits, according to DSHS.
People who rely on food stamps absorbed the most-recent cut in November when a temporary increase (part of the 2009 federal Stimulus Act) expired, reducing benefits by 10 percent.
Over the four years of negotiations on the legislation, Republicans and Democrats in Congress presented widely divergent proposals for cuts, but the final bill passed last month by a wide, bipartisan margin. In fact, differences over funding for food stamps essentially derailed the bill in 2012, according to a history of the legislation.
Eligibility for both SNAP and LIHEAP is based on household income. People earning up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify for heating assistance. Qualifying households receive between $25 and $1,000 toward their primary heat source for the season, with an average benefit of $450.
Maximum monthly SNAP benefits range from $189 for an individual to $497 for a three-person household. Minimum benefits for one- and two-person households are $15 per month.
County gets payments for federal lands
The Agricultural Act extends an important source of revenue to the county known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which go into the general fund and help pay for police, fire and emergency response, among other things. The act includes $410 million nationwide for a one-year extension of PILT.
The amount of PILT a county receives comes from a complex formula based on population and federal acreage and 2014 amounts have not been calculated yet, but last year Okanogan County received almost $2 million for its 1.56 million acres of federal land. Okanogan was one of only five counties in the state to get more than $1 million through the program last year; only Chelan County received more money.
The PILT program compensates counties with large areas of nontaxable federal lands, but officials from affected counties have had to lobby regularly for an extension. Congress guaranteed full payments from 2008 through 2012 and the program was reauthorized for last year, although the allocation was reduced because of sequestration.