‘Heat and eat’ — another squandered opportunity

Added October 9th, 2014 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

Michigan is being penny-wise and pound-foolish, refusing to pay $3 million to bring in $137 million in federal food assistance to 150,000 low-income households.

There are two issues in play here. The first is is that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) does not keep up with family food costs. The second is that Michigan has been able to raise SNAP benefits by an average of $76 per household, but now refuses to do so.

Fresh veggiesFood assistance benefits are too low because Congress refuses to update the standard SNAP benefit to reflect the real cost of nutritious food for a family.  Families cannot buy as much food as they used to with their food assistance, and some states (including Michigan until now) are filling the gap by using an option known as “heat and eat.”

Here is how it works: When the government calculates SNAP benefits for a low-income household, it factors in how much the household has to pay for rent and utilities. Because determining whether a household has to pay utilities separate from rent is onerous for administrators, the USDA devised the “heat and eat” option to allow states to give a utility deduction to any SNAP household that receives at least $1 in federal heating assistance, increasing their food assistance benefit.

To help food assistance recipients while Congress dithers on updating SNAP, 16 states (including Michigan) have been giving annual $1 heating assistance payments to SNAP households that normally would not receive them, so they can receive higher SNAP benefits. Michigan households have received an additional $76 per month in SNAP benefits because of this $1 per year investment.

Congress recently raised the amount of heating assistance needed to qualify a household for the utility allowance from $1 to $21. To comply with this, Michigan would need to spend $3.1 million per year (for 150,000 households), but would bring $137 million in federal SNAP dollars back into the state — helping not only the families receiving the benefit, but local grocers and communities in general.

Twelve of the 16 states that use “heat and eat” think paying $21 per household is still a good deal, and have chosen to continue the practice even at the higher cost. Michigan announced that it will leave the money on the table.

Lawmakers and the Department of Human Services justify the decision by stating that giving limited federal heating assistance money to those without heating bills means there will be less money left for those who do have them. Not necessarily so! States often add their own money to the federal heating assistance program. Michigan can afford to pay $3.1 million to bring in additional SNAP benefits without jeopardizing heating assistance for any households.

A big election is coming so make sure to ask your candidates where they stand on heat and eat.

Michigan should join the chorus of states saying that the SNAP benefit needs to be updated, and make use of “heat and eat” to fill that gap until Congress makes the update.

— Peter Ruark

5 Responses to “‘Heat and eat’ — another squandered opportunity”

  1. […] a relatively small amount of additional heating assistance, Michigan could have opted to keep a ‘heat and eat’ provision that secured extra federal food ass… to families needing help with utilities. Only four states, including Michigan, of 16 using this […]

  2. DeeAnna Wooden says:

    I am one of the 150,000 people in Michigan who has lost all their food
    stamp assistance due to ‘heat and eat’ policy in Michigan. I would like to talk with Peter Ruark by phone if possible to talk about this devastating
    turn of events for elderly people on disability on a fixed income.

  3. […] 150,000 households, including the elderly and persons with disabilities. The League has been working with lawmakers to find resolution for this problem for several years as it is a very cost-effective way to help low-income individuals while leveraging federal funds. […]

  4. […] and state officials to remedy this issue for several years. It was eighteen months ago that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services declined to pony up some state money in order to continue federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for many […]

  5. […] per month in food assistance for 338,000 low-income families. The League has worked closely on the Heat and Eat issue since it arose in 2014. The statement may be attributed to League Vice President Karen […]

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