Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Food Stamps and Federalism

By Lucas BergerPublished March 23, 2014

State governments across the nation are refusing to give in to government spending cuts on food stamps, and how Congress reacts will say a lot about the current state of federalism in the United States.

By Lucas Berger, 3/23/2014

One of the founding tenets of the United States government is federalism, which in short refers to the perpetually evolving balance of power between the state and national governments. In textbooks and classes throughout the nation it is presented as one of the most important dynamic in American government. Cooperation between the different levels of government sounds great, but it seems more and more each day that the people who really control the direction of public policy are serving at the federal level. The federal government receives the most press and is perceived by the public to be truly in charge; in many cases people do not even know who represents them on the state level. The state governments are portrayed as merely following orders and trying not to ruffle feathers in fear of losing federal funding. That power dynamic, both perceived and real, in American politics makes the current situation regarding food stamps all the more interesting. Governors across the country are standing up to the federal government, specifically the GOP, and saying that they will not be pawns in the plan to significantly reduce spending on SNAP, the well-known welfare program.

In early February the most recent farm bill, which is renewed every five years, was signed into law by President Obama. The name of this bill is a little bit misleading because the largest amount of spending in it is the Supplemental Nutrition Association Program, known as SNAP or, colloquially, food stamps. The important part, however, is that this new version of the act includes a projected $8 billion reduction in spending on food stamps over the next ten years. This provision was fairly controversial during deliberations over the bill, but in the end Democrats decided it would be a worthwhile compromise if spending on other welfare programs were not cut.

            Democrats may have been willing to accept a reduction in SNAP, but state governments have not been nearly as cooperative. Starting with Andrew Cuomo of New York, governors across the country have been exploiting a loophole in how SNAP benefits are paid out to ensure that their constituents do not see a reduction in benefits. State governments are increasing their spending on state heating assistance, which, when it reaches a certain level, has to be accompanied by a matching payment in food stamps from the federal government. So far six other states have joined New York in its fight against the national government, but more seem likely to follow. For New York, $6 million in additional funds need to be appropriated to heating assistance to preserve the benefits of around 300,000 families. In other states, such as Montana, the number is as small as $24,000. No matter how large the sum, the message is clear: Democratic governors feel that the spending cuts introduced by the federal government do not align with what is best for the people of their state, and for that reason they will oppose them.

            The most intriguing part of this scenario is what Congress will do next. Technically, the states are not doing anything illegal; they are simply choosing to allocate their funds in a different manner. If anything they are doing exactly what they should, looking out for those who they represent. If the Governors feel that food stamps are an important program from their constituents then they should do what it takes to make sure benefits are not cut. The point of these governments is to look out for the specific interests of their states, even if that may go against the nation's wishes. In reality, however, the Governors are clearly going against Congress's wishes and threatening the success of its proposed spending cuts. The President and his allies in Congress are most likely to support such a move, and thus far they have shown no signs of ordering the states to oblige. Republicans in the legislative branch are not going to be nearly as accepting. Many representatives have already spoken out saying that the states are disobeying federal law and that in response they may move to completely eradicate food stamps, leaving the states with few options for keeping the program alive. Regardless of what happens, shots have been fired, and we will all soon see if the national government holds as much power over the states as it seems.