On a critically tight timetable, Congress is racing to remove the $6.2 billion a year spending limit on food stamps.Without $2.5 billion more, the 20 million food stamp participants face a cutoff in June.
The House Agriculture Committee this week agreed to allow $8.7 billion in fiscal 1980 and $9.7 billion in fiscal 1981 for the program. The Senate already has given its approval. Two other House committees as well as the full House now must pass the measure.
But there are concerns within the US Agriculture Department (USDA) and the welfare-rights community that Congress will not be able to act by mid-may and that the program may have to be shut down for four months.
"It looks really scary . . . a real crisis," says USDA spokeswoman Diane Jenkins. "The situation is this: We are out of money at the end of May."
The Community Nutrition Institute (CNI), a food-advocacy group, points out that if Congress follows a work schedule similar to last year's, the program could be in jeopardy. "The timing is extrememly tricky," says Jeff Becker of the institute.
The Agriculture Department notified Congress last week that it coulr pursue three options: notify the states by March 15 to cut their food stamp programs beginning May 1 by 75 percent; notify the states by April 15 to cut benefits by 90 percent; wait until May 15 before ending benefits entirely.
The USDA favors the final option because it would reduce chaos and would give Congress more time to act. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland Feb. 21 sent letters to the 50 states and the District of Columbia warning of the possible June 1 suspension. Any of the options, however, would entail a series of difficult choices over which recipients -- the elderly, the disabled, or families -- are the neediest.
Although the $6.2 billion spending lid was imposed only three years ago, rising food prices and higher unemployment have sharply increased the program's cost. Food stamps are adjusted twice a year to compensate for inflation increases in the Consumer Price Index's "thrifty" food plan prices during previous months.
In 1979, the adjustments equaled a 12 percent increase. In the first adjustment of 1980, food stamps increased 2.5 percent -- reflecting moderate food price increases during the March-September 1979 measuring period.
These adjustments have led to a curious phenomenon: Unlike other types of welfare -- indeed, unlike most workers' wages -- food stamp allotments have been preserved from the erosion of value that occurs during periods of inflation.
Mr. Becker of CNI says there are many familes who were always eligible but have declined to accept food stamps for one reason or another. Now these families are seeking benefits because of inflation. This is causing the rolls to swell. He adds that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to stick to the "thrifty" food plan.