If spending $6 million of state funds would mean 300,000 impoverished families would get $457 million in federal food aid, why not spend it? That's what leaders in 16 other states may be asking after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's political play to cancel out cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is doing exactly that. After it became clear the newly slashed farm bill hit New York state residents disproportionately hard, Cuomo is paying out more in one benefit to fix another that struggling Americans have come to depend on for survival.
New York is one of 17 states that practiced what's called “heat and eat”: The state pays a nominal heating oil subsidy through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to residents receiving food assistance, making them automatically eligible for more food stamp benefits. In the past, there was no minimum amount of assistance that a household had to receive to become eligible for a higher amount of SNAP dollars—some states would pay just $1 to boost a family’s food stamp benefits.
Closing what critics refer to as a loophole in the 2014 farm bill was one of Congress’ principal means of cutting $8 billion from the nutrition assistance program. The new legislation requires that households receive a minimum of $20 of heating assistance to qualify for additional SNAP benefits.
But in places such as New York City, landlords are required to foot the bill for heat and hot water by law, so many families living in poverty don't ever see a heating bill. Subsidizing a bill that people don't even have to pay helped contribute to the program being categorized as a loophole—or as one USA Today editorial calls it, a scam. Heating bill or not, impoverished New Yorkers are in great need of a safety net, and the city was being hit disproportionately by the farm bill cuts.
That is why Cuomo is buying New York’s food stamp recipients a bit more heating oil. By bumping up the LIHEAP subsidy to $20 for hungry residents, the state government is ensuring that the average $127 per month cut for heat-and-eat households promised by the farm bill won’t be happening.
What’s more, other governors of heat-and-eat states could further erode the SNAP cuts by introducing similar measures. Sure enough, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are both looking to protect SNAP benefits by upping heating subsidies.