Oh, SNAP! The GOP’s war on the poor in the House farm bill

Eighty percent of the farm bill’s spending is on nutrition programs, e.g., the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly food stamps), but House Republicans want to start making work requirements for recipients harsher in order to benefit from these programs. No such requirements apply to the corporate welfare handed out to corporate executives to the tune of billions of dollars.

Tara Golshen at Vox.com has an explainer, House Republicans’ push to slash food stamps in the farm bill, explained:

The first draft of House Republicans’ farm bill, a $867 billion legislative package that subsidizes agriculture and food assistance programs, which Democrats say was written behind closed doors and without Democratic input. The bill has already passed out of the House Committee on Agriculture using only Republican votes. This is somewhat unusual — the farm bill has historically been bipartisan but has been plagued by a polarizing push over food assistance in recent years.

Rep. Collin Peterson, a conservative Minnesota Democrat and the Agricultural Committee’s ranking member, gave an impassioned statement just ahead of the partisan vote, saying, “We were pushed away by an ideological fight I repeatedly warned the chairman not to start.”

The House Rules Committee will devote Tuesday and Wednesday to the 2018 farm bill as members plow through a long list of amendments, raising the possibility of heated debate before it faces a floor vote later this week. Farm Bill Gets Two Days of House Rules Committee Consideration.

The Republican proposal to impose stricter work requirements and anti-fraud measures on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — is estimated to slash $20 billion from the program’s benefits over the next 10 years. One million people in households of more than 2 million individual could be pushed off the program or experience reduced benefits, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Republicans say their proposal is aimed at reducing poverty and promoting self-sufficiency.

“We believe that breaking this poverty cycle is really important,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), the chair of the Agriculture Committee, told reporters in early April — a continuation of President Donald Trump’s executive order this month charging his Cabinet secretaries to review their agencies’ welfare programs and institute work requirements wherever possible.

But poverty experts argue these stricter work requirements will add onerous paperwork to the program, cut off millions from necessary aid, and ultimately have dire public health consequences, like increasing food insecurity.

“My own sense is that this is a cost-cutting push, period,” James Ziliak, the director of University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research, said. “The disconnect is that some people don’t want to acknowledge that there are people in need.”

The House’s farm bill would make it harder to be eligible for food aid

There are already work requirements for able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 without dependents to receive food stamps; recipients have to work at least 20 hours per week in order to receive food aid for more than three months in a 36-month period. On average, a SNAP recipient usually receives $126.39 per month, and an average household receives $256.11 monthly — about $1.40 per meal.

States often waive those requirements when the economy is doing poorly and reinstate them in healthier job markets, designed to offer stability during the ebbs and flows of the economic cycle. It’s seen as an “important macroeconomic stabilizer.”

The House farm bill would make the work requirements stricter. Able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 without dependents would have to work at least 20 hours per week or be part of a job training program to be eligible for benefits, beginning in 2021 — and prove that they did so monthly. That minimum work requirement would be increased to 25 hours by 2026. Those who violate the requirements would be cut off from benefits for an entire year. If they violate the requirements repeatedly, recipients could be cut off from benefits for up to three years.

The impact of these reforms is clear: The Congressional Budget Office expects it would cut around $20 billion in benefit costs from the program over the next 10 years. The overall impact on the program is budget neutral — instead, the reforms would increase administrative costs by requiring beneficiaries to file more paperwork to maintain eligibility.

There are currently about 42 million Americans living below the poverty line, almost half of whom are children, who rely on SNAP to purchase food. It’s expected that roughly 2 million would be pushed off the rolls altogether, or see reductions in already meager stipends.

There are some investments in the benefits, with funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, which would double SNAP benefits when buying fruits and vegetables. But those improvements largely pale in comparison to the cuts low-income families would experience.

This bill as it is written kicks people off the SNAP program,” ranking member Peterson said at the bill’s mark up hearing. “The chairman calls it self-selection. Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”

SNAP is considered to be a very efficiently run program

SNAP is a program without much fraud, waste, or abuse.

For the greater part of the past decade, the payment error rate in the SNAP program — how the government measures the accuracy of who benefits from the program — has sat around 4 percent, a marker of an efficient program.

“It’s a very efficiently run program,” Ziliak said. “The evidence shows that the program actually works. Not all programs work. But SNAP actually is one of those that does what it is supposed to be doing.”

This runs counter to conservative orthodoxy that government does not work, so naturally they must sabotage the program to make it so.

Since 2000, farm bills have made efforts to streamline the eligibility process for SNAP and pilot programs to connect recipients with job training programs. It greatly expanded the program and increased the number of recipients. Conservatives decried the numbers as a product of a bloated welfare state. Poverty experts say it’s just a sign the program has become better at reaching people who need it.

Ironically, these proposed reforms — the expansion of the work requirements across a wider cross-section of the population, and the severity of the consequences for failing to meet those requirements — are “converting the program to be much more TANF like than ever in the past,” Ziliak said, referring to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a highly inefficient program that aims to give poor families financial aid.

The majority of people on food stamps are children or elderly. Among the others, most work.

Food stamp recipients are mostly children and elderly or disabled people76 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children. In 2013, SNAP recipients were roughly 40 percent white, 26 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic. Overall, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents is small.

And among the able-bodied adults without dependents — the contingent of the population subject to work requirements — most already work or are seeking work. They’re going in and out of low-paying jobs that have a lot of turnaround, are on SNAP on a temporary basis, and rely on the program when they’re unemployed.

SNAP Participants

As CBPP researchers Brynne Keith-Jennings and Raheem Chaudhry write, there are a lot of factors that make strict work requirements difficult for SNAP recipients:

This can be due to caretaking responsibilities, undiagnosed mental illness, or a lack of skills. Some of the reforms in the House farm bill would exacerbate these disadvantages. For example, the need to prove SNAP eligibility on a monthly basis could ironically force recipients to leave inflexible jobs.

Lawmakers drafting the bill are expecting this will push people off the rolls; the proposal is expected to cut $9 billion in costs just by reducing individual recipients.

There is strong evidence that SNAP reduces food insecurity especially when the economy takes a downward turn. A paper from Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Lauren Bauer, and Greg Nantz at the Hamilton Project, an economic think tank within the Brookings Institution, found that “SNAP improves health outcomes and households’ financial well-being, and even improves the later-life outcomes of individuals who had access to the program as children.”

As punitive as the first draft of this farm bill is, the amendments that President Trump and the radicals of the GOP House Freedom Caucus being debated today and tomorrow will make the farm bill even worse … and less likely to survive in the Senate.

Ironically, Trump Voters Would Be Hit Hardest by GOP’s Food Stamp Work Rules:

A House Republican plan to set stricter work rules for food stamp recipients would disproportionately affect low-income residents in states that supported Donald Trump for president and may imperil passage of farm legislation.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, said after a White House meeting with Trump on Thursday that the president “is keen on work requirements being a part” of the bill and offered to help pass a plan.

“The president wants to deliver a farm bill this year,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Thursday. “He also has a strong belief in the work requirements.”

The plan so far doesn’t have enough Republican votes to pass the House, according to Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which wants even stricter work requirements. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the chamber plans to consider the legislation next week.

The GOP is divided about how far the work rules should go as the party campaigns to keep its majorities in the House and Senate in November’s elections. The Senate, which needs to approve its own plan before negotiating with the House on a final package, is less likely to sign off on new work requirements.

Worker Shortages

Republicans say the requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats oppose those provisions because they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork requirements.

A Bloomberg analysis shows that 12.9 percent of residents of states that backed Trump in 2016 used food stamps in February, the most recent month for which data are available, compared with 11.4 percent in states won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. That amounts to 23.8 million people in Trump states compared with 16.2 million in Clinton territory.

Residents of non-metropolitan counties, which gave 66 percent of their votes to Trump in 2016, are 18 percent more likely to participate in the food-stamp program than city-dwellers, according to a study by the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which backs greater funding for anti-poverty programs in rural areas.

“One in four rural children lives in poverty,” said Dee Davis, the organization’s president. “The president’s response is to withhold food.”

* * *

About 40 million Americans were using food stamps in February, down 5.3 percent from the previous year and the lowest since March 2010, according to the USDA.

Tightened work rules have support among social and fiscal conservatives. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said tight work-eligibility rules are necessary to discourage a “lifestyle” of welfare dependence.

Parke Wilde, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, said criticizing the SNAP program is a way to signal disapproval of social-welfare initiatives. Even if those recipients are Trump voters, “there’s political mileage in just criticizing SNAP,” he said. “There’s concern about people loafing while on government assistance.”

SNAP Map

Trump’s support for work rules could be a “huge help” to gaining passage in the House, especially among lawmakers worried about farm subsidy spending, said Conaway. But it may complicate approval of any farm bill in the Senate, which would need to reconcile its plan with a House version to craft a final law for the president to sign.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who attended the White House meeting with Conaway and Perdue, has yet to propose a bill in that chamber. The discussion with Trump was “productive,” said his spokeswoman, Meghan Cline.

Roberts has said he’ll seek bipartisan support for the measure, given the greater power of Democrats in the Senate, controlled by the GOP 51-49.

The House may be a lost cause, but this punitive farm bill can be blocked in the Senate. Contact your members of Congress and give them an earful.

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