Senate vote on food stamps could help Jewish refugees

The Senate this week approved a sweeping restoration of the nutrition program by an overwhelming 92-8 vote.

Jewish activists hailed the Senate vote as a major victory. The organized Jewish community had made the issue the centerpiece of its domestic legislative agenda over the past year.

The measure would restore the food stamp program to some legal immigrants who had been cut off by the 1996 welfare reform law.

The measure extends from five years to seven the eligibility for food stamps for refugees, including tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Refugees are afforded benefits similar to those for citizens because they are believed to be fleeing persecution.

The Senate measure also would allow elderly, disabled and young immigrants who were in the United States before the welfare bill became law in 1996 to collect food stamps.

"This is a major victory in a lot of ways," said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

"The cost to our system is substantially less. We can concentrate our resources in other areas," said Aviv, whose office staff erupted in cheers as they watched the final Senate vote tally on television on Tuesday.

Local Jewish communities had said they would not be able to step in to make up the loss to immigrants.

The move leaves virtually all Jews who had faced the loss of benefits now covered by the program.

No definitive figures exist of how many Jews receive food stamps or how many were cut off the roll by the 1996 law. But Aviv said the measure amounts to tens of million of dollars for poor, elderly and frail Jews in need.

The Senate measure excludes about two-thirds of the 935,000 legal immigrants cut off by the welfare law who, for any number of reasons, do not qualify under the legislation.

The $818 million plan, which is included in a broader piece of legislation on agriculture, comes from administrative savings in the food stamp program.

The move is the latest effort to reinstate some of the benefits lost to legal immigrants as a result of the 1996 welfare reform law.

Last year, Congress reinstated two other benefits, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, to some legal immigrants.

The House, which is expected to pass the legislation, plans to vote on it after its Memorial Day recess.

Indicating his support for the measure, President Clinton has threatened to veto the agriculture bill if it does not arrive on his desk with the food stamp restoration.