Interactive: Republicans More Likely to Have Constituents Who Use Food Stamps

As Congress debates fate of program, several of those seeking cuts have high percentage of constituents who benefit

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When the House voted in September to cut $40 billion from the federal food-stamp program over 10 years, all but 15 Republicans supported the measure while not a single Democrat did so.

But according to a TIME analysis of county-by-county food-stamp-enrollment data compiled by the nonprofit Feeding America, it appears that House Republicans represent more districts with high levels of participation in the program than House Democrats. Of the 350 congressional districts in which TIME was able to estimate the percentage of people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 76 had levels of 20% or higher. Of those, 43 are held by Republicans while 33 are controlled by Democrats.

Nationwide, 15% of Americans (47.7 million people) participate in SNAP, according to Department of Agriculture figures, and the program receives around $80 billion in funding annually.

Over the summer, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its own version of the bill that trimmed only $4 billion from the program. Negotiators from both chambers met on Wednesday to try to negotiate a compromise on the two bills

Representative Austin Scott, one of the farm-bill conferees, represents a district in southern Georgia in which approximately 1 in 4 constituents currently receives farm-bill aid, according to the data — considerably above the national average of 15%. 

When asked about the program on Tuesday, Scott suggested that abuse of the system warrants the cuts in the House bill.

“Anybody who is realistic acknowledges that there is some abuse in the system, and those abuses need to go away,” Scott said. “We’re going to protect seniors, we’re going to protect the disabled and those that can’t work, but if someone can work, then they’ve got a responsibility to work.”

The farm bill spends around 80% of its $100 billion a year on food stamps. Enrollment in SNAP jumped by nearly 20 million people during the recession, leading many House Republicans to argue that corruption in the program is common.

While congressional districts with the absolute highest levels of enrollment are more likely to be represented by Democrats, many rural districts with very high participation in the program are represented by Republicans leading the charge in cutting billions from the program. In Kentucky’s 5th district, represented by Republican Hal Rogers, 1 in 3 people receives SNAP benefits. After the House passed its version of the farm bill, however, Rogers wrote: “Struggling children, seniors, veterans and families, clearly in need of assistance … compete against scammers, lottery winners, gamblers and others who may be able to work, but simply refuse.”

Because of limitations in Feeding America’s data, which is missing county-level data for about a dozen states, it is not possible to make a definitive correlation between SNAP enrollment in a district and the party of the member who represents it in Congress. (It is also difficult to translate county data into congressional districts in small or highly gerrymandered districts, leading to some margin of error.) Based on the available figures, there does not appear to be a significant difference in food-stamp usage in Democratic or Republican districts, with both averages in the neighborhood of the national mean.

Unlike the Senate plan, House Republicans achieve a significant portion of the cuts by restricting able-bodied, childless adults who receive SNAP benefits and ending state waivers to those who have been unemployed for more than three months. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that on average a total of 2.8 million people would lose their SNAP benefits over the next decade, and another 850,000 households would see an average reduction of about $90 a month in benefits. The Senate makes relatively minor changes in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that decrease SNAP benefits.

Liberal groups argue that the House bill goes above and beyond the need for reform. “Those who would be thrown off the program include some of the nation’s most destitute adults, as well as many low-income children, seniors and families that work for low wages,” writes the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa, the House subcommittee chairman on nutrition — whose district has below-average SNAP enrollment — says the four principal negotiators may have to decide to “put a number down on a piece of paper and roll the dice.”

The current farm-bill authorization expires at the end of the year. Wednesday’s meeting involves the chair and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee in both chambers: Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Congressmen Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.