Opinion

Derrick Z. Jackson

Fueling a heat and eat rebellion

The Republicans once again tried to shove the poor off the budget gangplank. Instead, they got the Heat and Eat Rebellion.

The rebellion is over the farm bill. House Republicans have used it to try to slash access to food stamps. They originally sought $40 billion in cuts, but ended up with a cut of $8.5 billion after outrage from both the public and the Democratic majority in the Senate.

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They also changed the rules. Under the old law, people in many cold-weather states who received even $1 per month in heating aid automatically qualified for food stamp benefits in a program aptly nicknamed “Heat and Eat.” On average, the $1 triggered about $90 a month in food stamps, now known as SNAP (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The Republicans changed the rules so that recipients would have to receive $20 a month in heating aid to receive food stamps, hoping the bar was now too high for the states to help recipients qualify for food stamps. They were wrong.

Eight states — Connecticut, New York, Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont, and Massachusetts — said the new qualifying level was brutally unacceptable. Rather than let residents who previously received less than $20 a month in home heating aid lose food stamps, those states tapped into their reserve heating funds to bump all those recipients up to the new $20 qualifying threshhold. In Massachusetts, which will continue to tap into heating funds in order to maintain SNAP benefits for about 163,000 households, Governor Patrick stressed the urgency of helping vulnerable residents meet their basic needs.

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The most noteworthy of the eight states is Pennsylvania. Republican Governor Tom Corbett broke ranks with his party to maintain SNAP benefits. State welfare spokeswoman Kait Gillis said people should not have to choose between heat and food. When a Republican joins the Heat and Eat Rebellion, you know it’s ugly out there.

Despite the worst economic disparities in decades, Republicans seem more dedicated to taking a few billion from the poor than going after more than $200 billion in corporate tax breaks and offshore tax shelters. They’re still hunting for Reagan’s welfare queens.

House Speaker John Boehner recently ranted, “Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps. And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.”

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Supposed House action on what Republicans consider cheating and fraud came on Tuesday when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled the GOP’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015. It would cut $125 billion from SNAP over the next decade by making it a block-grant program.

Ryan took aim at the Heat and Eat Rebellion by saying states were still abusing heating funds to get more people into SNAP. His budget resolution claims the House will “eliminate’’ that abuse.

Cheating. Fraud. Abuse. The Republicans prefer to scapegoat rather than recognize that much of America remains in an economic tailspin, from urban inner cities to isolated rurual areas.

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy was so incensed by Boehner’s “fraud’’ comments that he wrote a personal letter to the speaker. Malloy condemned Boehner’s views as “reprehensible,” especially since the states were merely following the new Republican-inspired law. Malloy said Boehner’s “demonization” of states giving $20 in heating aid implies that recipients, including children, veterans, and the elderly are “party to something criminal.”

Good for Malloy to call out Boehner. Good for the states in the Heat and Eat Rebellion to stick up for the poor. It is the Republicans who, in a moral sense, are party to something criminal.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of corporate tax breaks and offshore tax shelters. It is more than $200 billion.

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