‘Gaming the system’? States use trick to undo food stamp cuts

States are using what critics call a "perverse" legislative maneuver to partly undo congressional cuts to food stamps, despite efforts by some U.S. lawmakers to stop it.

The Washington Post reported Monday that three states so far are finding a way to avoid or minimize the cuts. The bill passed by Congress last month was supposed to save $8.6 billion over the next decade in food stamps. But New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have figured out how to trigger additional spending anyway.

The trick, as many states have discovered, is for them to devote a relatively modest amount of funding to home-heating assistance. Under the law, states that give a certain amount to families could then qualify those families for additional food stamp money.

Lawmakers, reportedly concerned that states were "gaming the system," had raised the threshold in the new law -- but states have responded by simply spending more money on home-heating assistance. In turn, this triggers more food stamp funding.

The move, which supporters hail as a way to keep feeding families in need, also threatens to undermine the savings from the hard-fought farm bill. Fiscal conservatives have long worried that food stamp funding -- formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- has surged to dangerous levels, reaching nearly $80 billion last year.

According to the Post, it's not clear how long the latest gambit will last.

"Some states will be able to do it, some states will not be able to. No one knows for how long they'll be able to do it," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told the Post. "They have jumped into the breach where the federal government abdicated its responsibility."

But so far, New York State reportedly raised home-heating spending by $6 million, resulting in an extra $500 million in federal food stamp money.

Connecticut and Pennsylvania took similar steps.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told the Post that lawmakers would have expressly prohibited this if they had expected it. He called the move "perverse," despite being legal.