Vermont and other states have figured out a way to help some seniors and families with children avoid freezing or starving this winter. Under a so-called “Heat and Eat” provision in the food stamps program, a household is entitled to more food aid if it also is enrolled in the federally-funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps people pay their utility bills. Some states were making only token payments to families for home heating assistance to help them qualify for food stamps. The farm bill that Congress passed in February said states would have to pay at least $20 a year in fuel aid to prompt the food stamp benefits. Republicans assumed that states wouldn’t want to pay the extra $20 and projected that the new farm bill would result in $8.6 billion in food stamp cuts over the next decade. They were wrong.
Even before voting on the farm bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders called Gov. Peter Shumlin and won assurances that Vermont would come up with the extra heating aid funding needed to prevent cuts in food stamps for Vermont families and seniors. Now, at least eight states have decided to do the same thing and raise their heating-aid payments enough to avoid food stamp cuts. House Speaker John Boehner is in a dither. He said on Thursday that he wants Congress “to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.”
The New York Times called out Boehner’s histrionics. “The states are doing exactly what the farm bill — which Mr. Boehner supported — encouraged them to do: pay more to some of the poorest families in America so they neither freeze nor starve during a brutal winter.” The change in the Vermont law is expected to soon win final approval by the state Legislature. Without the fix, about 21,000 Vermont families would lose food stamps benefits worth $90 a month on average, according to Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.