PITTSFIELD -- With a snap of his fingers, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has taken steps to protect an estimated 163,000 families from cuts to their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
The cuts were scheduled to go into effect as a result of the recently passed federal agriculture bill.
The farm bill, which was approved by Congress last month, would have cut an average of $80 a month from SNAP benefits for Massachusetts families, said state Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz.
Under the plan, the state Department of Transitional Assistance and Department of Housing and Community Renewal will increase its contribution to the Low Income Heating Assistance Program from $1 to at least $20 a month, which will stave off the SNAP cuts.
The farm bill specifies that a person receive at least $20 in heating assistance to qualify for additional SNAP benefits, known in Massachusetts as the Heat and Eat program. There are 14 states which participate in the program.
No legislative action is required, state Department of Housing and Community Renewal spokesman Matt Sheaff said. Sheaff said his department will expend $3 million from federal heating assistance funds to make up the difference. Sheaff said the state annually rolls over an excess of heating assistance funds and uses the money for the next year.
"The multiplier effect of SNAP funding is about two to one," Polanowicz said. "That funding is going to be felt in our grocery stores and supermarkets.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner told The Associated Press last month that states were finding ways to circumvent the intent of the farm bill cuts by approving such measures. Connecticut, Montana and New York all took similar actions to the one announced in Massachusetts on Tuesday.
"Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps," Boehner said.
The proposed cuts to the SNAP program followed a reduction in October when Congress allowed the benefit rate to decrease by not extending a law passed as part of federal stimulus spending in 2009. The maximum benefit to individuals was decreased from $200 to $189 a month. The maximum benefit for families dropped from $668 a month to $632 a month.
Valerie Schwarz, executive director for the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams, said an estimated 80 to 100 people are utilizing her organization's free hot meals each day. "Everybody that's on food stamps relies on every penny they get," she said. "Surviving for these people is their job now."
The people she sees are struggling to pay rent, buy food and pay for heat, along with other expenses, she said, adding that when they are evicted, they can't come up with a security deposit for a new place.
U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., voted against the farm bill, which he said would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $8.6 billion over 10 years.
"Instead of stopping wasteful aid to the wealthiest farmers, the farm bill slashes SNAP benefits for the poorest Americans, the elderly and disabled. We have a dire hunger problem in this country, and cuts to the SNAP program will only make it worse," Markey said in a statement issued following the bill's passage in February. "During this frigid winter, vulnerable families shouldn't have to choose between heating their home or putting food on the table."
In October, Markey joined a coalition of 38 senators urging the farm bill negotiators to reject cuts to food stamps.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also voted against the farm bill.
"I cannot support legislation that further slashes the SNAP program, which provides $1.47 per meal to those who need it most," Warren said in a statement last month. She said the legislation had billions in giveaways to multibillion dollar agriculture companies.
"With far too many Americans still out of work, now is not the time to make it harder for our struggling friends and neighbors to eat," she said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said the governor's announcement was welcome news. "This has been a tough winter," he said.
Pignatelli said not a week has gone by when his office hasn't been contacted by somebody struggling to pay heating bills this winter. His office directs them to the Berkshire Community Action Council, which Pignatelli said does a "yeoman's job" of handling heating assistance applications.
"My own electric (heating) bill has gone through the roof," he said.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, could not be reached for comment.
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