Lawmakers call on Congress to pass smaller food stamp cuts

Standing in a warehouse full of food for needy families, three Democratic lawmakers called Monday for Congress to avoid sharp cuts to food stamps proposed in a $500 billion farm bill.

Lawmakers want to pass the massive legislation by the end of the year, but talks between House and Senate negotiators have stalled over how much should be cut from food stamps — a program that helps to feed one in seven Americans.

"We're not talking about lavish meals," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said during an event at the Maryland Food Bank in Halethorpe where he was joined by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County.

"We're talking about just enough help to make sure a child gets to eat lunch or a mother doesn't have to worry about sending her children to bed or to school hungry," Cummings said.

Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps nationwide — up 18 percent since 2010. About 796,000 Marylanders are enrolled, including 219,000 in Baltimore City and an additional 175,000 in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Senate Democrats approved a farm bill that includes $4 billion in food stamp reductions. House Republicans passed legislation with a $40 billion cut. Republicans say the program needs reform and that enrollment should decline as the recession eases.

"It serves a noble purpose, to help you when you hit bottom," Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said during debate on the bill. "But it's not meant to keep you at the bottom — and that's why it's important we ensure the integrity of the program."

Food stamp cuts proposed in the bill come on top of an $11 billion reduction that occurred when a recession-related increase in spending ended Nov. 1. For an individual, that reduction amounted to about $11 less in food stamps per month.

It's not clear how many Maryland families would be affected by the new cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington estimates one provision of the House bill alone — to eliminate the state's ability to waive work requirements for some recipients — could make 77,000 Marylanders ineligible for assistance.

Lawmakers have only a few work days remaining to broker a compromise on the farm bill by the end of the year or approve a short-term extension. Without legislation, U.S. farm policy would be dictated by a Truman-era law that would double the price of milk in January.

In addition to setting spending on food stamps, the farm bill dictates agricultural policy and subsidies for five years.

"As we go into the holiday season, we implore our colleagues in the House ... to show compassion," Sarbanes said.

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