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Food Stamp Expansion Gets Surprising Boost

Congress: Bipartisan effort comes amid push to decrease number of welfare recipients.


WASHINGTON — At a time when Congress is spending the federal budget surplus on pork-barrel projects, beefing up the military and eyeing tax breaks for retirement savings, lawmakers are quietly moving legislation on another front: providing help for the poor through the biggest expansion of the food stamp program in seven years.

Buried in an appropriation bill about to clear Congress is a measure that would provide a $1.5-billion increase in food stamp benefits over five years. This would hike benefits to 2 million families and add hundreds of thousands of new families to the program's rolls, according to the Clinton administration.

Although a relatively modest increase in a $20-billion program, it is a surprising move in an era that has been dominated by efforts to reduce the number of people receiving food stamps and other forms of welfare.

The measure, which would allow an increase in the car and housing allowances used to calculate food stamp eligibility, is expected to be particularly helpful to working-poor families in states such as California, where housing costs are high and mass transportation options are limited. The House is expected to approve the bill containing the measure today, and Senate action is expected shortly thereafter.

The way the food stamp provision was approved speaks volumes about the often-haphazard way that Congress, in the waning days of this session, has been deciding how to allocate the growing budget surplus. With many of these efforts driven by home-state political pressures and the lobbying campaigns of well-heeled industries, the interests of the poor have not been heavily represented in the corridors of power.

That is why many Congress watchers were surprised when, in the middle of a recent House-Senate conference committee on the budget for the Agriculture Department, Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) proposed the $1.5-billion food stamp expansion--and it won with bipartisan support over the opposition of GOP committee leaders. Republicans and Democrats alike were drawn to the proposal by the argument that existing food stamp rules are an obstacle to the transition of welfare recipients to work.

President Clinton is unhappy with other provisions of the agriculture bill--one to increase imports of low-cost prescription drugs and another to ease the trade embargo with Cuba--because he does not think they go far enough. But he strongly supports the food stamp initiative.

Advocates for low-income programs hailed the initiative but voice frustration that the poor are not benefiting more from the surplus-generated spending spurt in Congress.

The food stamp provision "is both significant and very helpful," said Ellen Nissenbaum, legislative director for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank. "Yet it is extremely modest relative to the size of the overall surplus and the other tax and spending provisions still alive on Capitol Hill."

Congress already has passed a $288-billion appropriation bill for defense, an $18-billion increase. It is moving to provide $17 billion in tax breaks over five years to allow people to put more money in individual retirement accounts. And in one spending bill alone, congressional negotiators included $1 billion more for local energy and water projects than either the House or Senate had initially approved.

Action was sought on the food stamp issue by advocates for the poor who argued that the existing car and housing allowance rules are outdated.

Under current law, low-income families with inordinately high housing costs are allowed to deduct $280 a month from their income in calculating the amount of food stamps they receive. The proposed legislation would increase that deduction to $340 a month and provide for annual inflation adjustments in the future. The administration estimates that the change would increase benefits to 2 million people.

Current law also allows families to deduct the value of their car--but only up to $4,650--from their assets in calculating food stamp eligibility. The car allowance has been raised by only $150 since it was established in 1977.

The pending measure would eliminate the federally mandated ceiling on the car allowance, freeing states to set their own limit. The administration, based on a survey of the car-allowance limits that states set for other programs, estimates that would allow 245,000 more people to qualify for food stamps.

Under current rules, a household of four with gross monthly income of $1,848 or less generally is eligible for food stamps.

"Families shouldn't have to choose between having a decent car to get to and from work or properly feeding their children," said Walsh.

Low-income people stand to gain from other legislation still in the works. The most closely watched is the move to increase the minimum wage by $1 over two years, raising it to $6.15 an hour. But Clinton and GOP leaders are haggling over related tax-cut provisions that could still snarl the deal.

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