For some U.S. families, the winter can bring hard economic choices. Heat is a major seasonal expense for those living in cold climates, and many struggling to get by on government assistance or poverty-level wages often have to make a choice between paying the heating bill and buying food. State Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs, or LIHEAP, attempt to solve this dilemma by paying for heat so that there’s more money left over for food in the winter months.
Three Republican governors—Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Rick Snyder of Michigan—are cutting heating assistance programs and thereby blocking residents from receiving increased SNAP benefits, the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (also known food stamps).
As part of a nearly $1 trillion farm bill passed last February, federal lawmakers raised the minimum state heating assistance contribution from $1 to $20 per family in 16 cold-weather states and the District of Columbia. Now states must give residents at least $20 per year for home heating in order for the U.S. government to kick in money for food stamps—an average of $1,080 a year, according to Bloomberg News. “Heat and eat” provisions acknowledge that families often have to choose between buying food and paying heating bills—to pay the heat or eat, as it were.
Many people on both sides of the issue believed that most of the cold-weather states affected would opt-out of the funding. This would mean a reduction in benefits for 850,000 households—about 4 percent of food-stamp recipients—and result in over $8 billion in funding cuts for SNAP. This is one-third of the savings promised by the farm bill.
In most affected states, that’s not how things played out. As of today, 13 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to pay the higher heating subsidy in exchange for the food-stamp funding or have said they will do so in the future. New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin are the only ones who haven’t. About 20 percent of the food-stamp recipients targeted by the new farm bill “heat and eat” loophole live in New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Though New Jersey funded LIHEAP when it was only $1 per household, in August, Christie vetoed a General Assembly measure that would have brought $54 in federal money for every dollar the state spends on heating assistance. He objected to the provision because it does not require recipients to show proof that they need heating assistance.
“Distribution of benefits without regard to actual heating and cooling expenses as envisioned in this bill is clearly impermissible,” Christie said in a letter to the General Assembly when he announced the veto. Many have speculated that refusing federal money is a calculated move for Christie as he considers a presidential run in 2016. By saying no to food-stamp subsidies, he can present himself as a conservative who takes a tough stance on government aid.
He’s so tough, he’s willing to let people go hungry, apparently. One New Jersey resident, 72-year-old Fred Bruker, saw his food assistance go from $138 a month to $15, according to Bloomberg News. This means Bruker is eating less, and he says he’s lost five pounds in the past month.
But, as TakePart reported in March, the good news is that most state officials have responded to the “heat and eat” provisions by bolstering their funding for heating. This means that in many cases, residents get more food and heating assistance overall.
In Oregon, households could qualify for more SNAP benefits if they also were eligible for heating assistance. The state is paying the higher heating subsidy so that 141,000 households can continue to receive food stamps.
Holding on to the SNAP funding makes a lot of economic sense for these cold-weather states. Vermont, for example, increased its heating subsidy at a cost of $400,000, but that means the state will receive $15 million in SNAP money for 19,000 homes, Slate reported in July.
In 2012, SNAP helped lift 4 million people above the poverty line. Food stamps don’t just help low-income people eat. They bolster local economies. According to the Department of Agriculture, every $5 in SNAP funding leads to $9 in economic activity.