Governor makes right call in maintaining food stamp benefits

The food security provided through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ensures a human right to members of an advanced democracy like the United States.

SNAP is funded through federal farm bills that also fund protections and subsidies for farmers. Last month, Congress passed a long-delayed farm bill promising new benefits to farmers in the form of new subsidies while making deep cuts to SNAP.

The bill egregiously realigns the priorities of this nation, allowing further buffeting of profitable agribusiness while stripping protections for those most in need.

In response to the move, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan last week to preserve the $457 million from the federal government that comes to New York for SNAP. The plan will retain the approximately $127 per month that nearly 300,000 New York households would have lost under the federal bill.

The plan reveals both a penchant for helping the poor and the value of clever budgetary maneuvering.

The recently passed farm bill closed a loophole that guaranteed SNAP benefits to Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) recipients regardless of how much LIHEAP assistance they received. The new regulation required LIHEAP recipients to get at least $20 per month to receive the SNAP benefits. Many received far less than this - as little as $1.

Cuomo plans to spend $6 million of state funds to bring the nearly 300,000 households that would lose SNAP under this regulation up to the monthly $20 LIHEAP threshold. This will guarantee a continuation of federal SNAP benefits.

The move sets a powerful precedent as several other states disproportionately affected by the SNAP cutback consider similar plans to maintain the food assistance funding - as they should, despite the ideological arguments against food security for this nation's most vulnerable. Fraud, cost and lack of incentive to work are among the most cited reasons for cutting SNAP benefits.

Fraud in the food stamp program is certainly troubling, though sparse at best. More than 98 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to eligible households with only a 3 percent rate of overpayment, and errors have been decreasing since the 1990s, according to the Quality Control Branch of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service.

The program's cost is among the most common, and erroneous, criticisms of SNAP. But in actuality, every $5 spent on SNAP generates as much as $9 of economic activity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Though there has been a spike in recent SNAP claims, primarily a function of the recession and persistently high unemployment rate, the share of gross domestic product dedicated to the program is expected to shrink through the decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The governor's plan, then, will not only assist those in need but will also stimulate economic activity in the state to a rate far higher than the $6 million initial investment.

Claims will persist that guaranteed food security will serve as a disincentive for recipients to work. The stance is more ideological than accurate, and far from empirically vetted. The phony fear should hardly be what stops us from feeding people in need.

Some people will abuse the system. Some will choose not to work because they know a federal program will assist in food payments. Some will try and sell their benefit cards.

But the crimes of the few should not deny the rights of the many.

Despite the imperfections of SNAP, the system allows the government to protect a basic human right for millions of America's most needy - and hungry - citizens. It's a program that deserves wholehearted support.

With his legal finagling, Cuomo is setting an important precedent. His decision to preserve the food security for 300,000 families will make a world of difference for people who won't be forced to choose between rent and a meal.