By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The 3.19 million New Yorkers who receive federal assistance to purchase their groceries will have to make their food dollars go a little further beginning Friday, when a cut in monthly benefits takes effect.
And more cuts are on the way. House and Senate lawmakers began formal negotiations Wednesday on farm bill legislation covering food and agricultural policy programs. Those talks will almost certainly cut monthly benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
The cuts that begin Friday mark the phase-out of an enhanced food benefit that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus legislation enacted during the Great Recession.
The SNAP benefit for a single person will drop $11 a month to $189. A family of four will see its monthly benefit drop $36 to $632.
New Yorkers overall will lose $332 million in annual food assistance, according to the Hunger Action Network of New York State.
The cuts being considered beyond that involve differences between the farm and SNAP bills passed by the House and Senate.
The House approved SNAP cuts totaling $39 billion over 10 years. The Senate version would reduce SNAP spending by only $3.9 billion over 10 years.
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx, the only New York lawmaker on the conference committee working on final legislation, said he intends to make sure the SNAP cuts don't destroy the program.
"I am going to be a vigorous defender of the SNAP program,'' Engel said. "These draconian cuts that are being proposed by Republicans are just totally ridiculous and should not be able to stand. I am going to be as vocal about that as I can.''
Although Engel doesn't have any farms in his southern-Westchester-north-Bronx congressional district, he does have tens of thousands of constituents who receive SNAP benefits.
Given that the House and Senate bills would both cut SNAP, "Some cuts are probably unavoidable given the current climate," Engel said. "But I don't want to see the magnitude of the cuts destroy the program.''
Currently, people who receive at least $1 a month from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program are automatically eligible for SNAP benefits. The Senate bill would raise that to $10 a month while the House bill would raise it to $20 a month.
The House bill also would stop exempting states with high unemployment from a requirement that they impose work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents who currently work less than 20 hours a week.
Engel is serving as negotiator on the farm bill legislation because he's the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the legislation also covers foreign food aid.
Four members of the New York congressional delegation - Sen. Kirsten Gilliband and Reps. Chris Collins, Sean Maloney and Chris Gibson - serve on either the House or Senate agriculture committee, but none is senior enough to have been selected as a negotiator.
Engel said he and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., support changing the current mandate for shipping U.S. food commodities so a higher percentage of the food could be purchased locally or regionally.
The Senate legislation would add flexibility in that area. Engel said he plans to join Royce in lobbying for that version.
"We find it is cheaper and more efficient,'' Engel said. "You can feed more people for less money and you don't undermine the local economy.''
The House and Senate negotiators will pay the most attention to agricultural policy, including a proposed federal safety net program for dairy farmers approved by both chambers.
Engel, a former member of the state Assembly, said that while he served in Albany he visited dairy farms and knows how important the industry is to the state.
"Some of the dairy people have contacted me,'' he said.
Engel said he could not predict when or if the negotiators will reach a compromise.
"I wish I had a crystal ball,'' he said." There should be an agreement. I'm just one conferee and it takes two to tango.''