By Jonathan Oosting | MLive.com
LANSING — Some 150,000 Michigan families are poised to lose an average of $76 in food stamp benefits this fall due to federal cuts that many other states have taken action to avoid.
The latest farm bill, signed into law here in Michigan last winter, scaled back the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which includes a provision affording extra food benefits to families who also receive assistance with heating bills.
Some families who rent don’t have utility bills, but states had been able to help them qualify for extra food stamps by providing just $1 in heating assistance. Under the new farm bill, the minimum "heat and eat" payment is jumping to $21.
Of the 16 states directly impacted by the federal rule change, 12 have decided to pay the higher tab to help recipients avoid food stamp cuts. Many are redirecting additional federal dollars from a separate low-income heating program.
But not Michigan.
“We decided we couldn’t justify spending $21 per household for people that didn’t have any energy expenses, particularly in a year where the state had really cold temperatures,” said Department of Human Services spokesperson Bob Wheaton.
“We’re one of the states that made the decision, no, we’re not going to exploit this $21 loophole. We’ll just provide energy assistance to families who actually have energy costs.”
Critics say Michigan is making a short-sighted mistake, however. They argue the state could invest additional resources -- even general fund dollars, as California is doing -- to avoid larger federal food stamp cuts affecting vulnerable residents.
Of the four states where recipients are poised to lose benefits, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate.
“Sadly, this is a missed opportunity to spend a little to get a lot for families in Michigan,” Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, said in a statement.
“Michigan should find $8 million to supplement heating assistance so that we can bring $250 million in additional federal food benefits to Michigan families still struggling in this economy. And remember -- nearly half of those receiving food assistance are children.”
The states avoiding the food stamp cuts are mostly run by Democrats, according to the Associated Press, and they’ve infuriated Congressional Republicans who pushed to scale back the program during negotiations on the farm bill.
Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has reportedly joined a colleague in asking the Obama administration to "hold states accountable" for the workaround.
Most effected Michigan families will see cuts kick in this November, but a small number have already started to see reductions, according to Wheaton. An average family of four will see their monthly benefits cut by about 15 percent.
State Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, helped re-work Michigan’s winter assistance heating program in 2012. The program is designed to prevent utility shutoffs for vulnerable residents and requires services to help recipients become self-sufficient, including assistance with household budgeting.
Caswell, who chairs the Human Services appropriations committee in the Senate, said he did not think the state should move to avoid the food stamp cuts by providing some heating assistance to families who don’t necessarily need it.
“Quite frankly, with the dollars we hand out with our heating program in the state, it’s my opinion we don’t have the money to just give it to people for no reason whatsoever,” he said. “We’re trying to build a system of self-reliance and self-personal responsibility.”