The House Agriculture Committee’s proposed farm bill provides a mix of new restrictions and incentives in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Republicans say would give beneficiaries’ new dignity by helping them find work or better-paying employment.
“By modernizing SNAP, by making these changes that incentivize work, by encouraging collaboration, by promoting and improving access – we will be ensuring better nutrition for American families,” said Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
Shortly before the bill's release, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., highlighted the bill in a news conference, saying it would "help get more Americans out of poverty, and it’s going to help more Americans get into the workforce, while maintaining support for those in need."
The bill would require all able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 59, including parents of children over 6 years of age, to work or be in an approved training program for at least 20 hours a week. The legislation also would make it harder for states to get waivers from the work rules.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 are required to work or be in job training, but they can be unemployed for as many as three months out of every three years, longer if states receive waivers from USDA from the requirements.
The bill’s provisions would likely increase the number of SNAP recipients subject to the work rules from 3.5 million currently to between 5.5 million and 6.5 million. In Fiscal Year 2017, SNAP provided monthly benefits to more than 42 million Americans for an annual cost of $63.7 billion.
SNAP recipients who fall under the work requirement would be guaranteed a slot in a state employment and training program, which states would be given two years to develop. After that, the programs would be funded at $1 billion a year.
The changes are expected to reduce SNAP enrollment by about a million as recipients decide the requirements aren’t worth the benefits or their earnings increase enough that they are no longer eligible.
Democrats argue that the SNAP reforms are unworkable and cruel, and they have vowed to fight the bill in committee and on the House floor. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson (pictured above), has been particularly critical of the plan to ramp up state employment and training programs, saying that will create an unwieldy bureaucracy that would offer too little assistance to SNAP beneficiaries to do them much good. Many anti-hunger groups also will oppose the reforms.
“When we make it harder to access food assistance, we’re not setting people on a path to independence, we’re knocking them back down," said Matt Knott, president of Feeding America, a network of food banks. "The logic behind increasing SNAP employment requirements is backwards; it starts from a premise that people aren’t working to begin with and that’s not the case. These cuts would increase the need for food assistance nationwide, and the non-profit sector simply can’t fill the gap — for every meal provided by the Feeding America network, SNAP provides 12."
Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee say the provisions would be dead on arrival in that chamber.
But House Republicans will argue that the changes are long overdue, and Ryan is using the farm bill as a platform to make the case for welfare reform.
The legislation also offers some changes aimed at encouraging low-income Americans to eat more healthful foods, although the legislation stops short of imposing restrictions on SNAP purchases of sugary beverages or salty, fatty snacks considered junk food.
To test other approaches for improving diets, the measure would mandate $120 million in new funding for USDA to set up retailer-funded pilot projects that increase the purchasing power of SNAP benefits for fruits, vegetables and dairy products. USDA could match 25 percent of the retailer-provided incentives.
The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINI), which provide grants to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables by low-income people, would be funded at $65 million a year by 2023. The program was funded at $25 million for fiscal 2018 under the 2014 farm bill.
The FINI program also would be renamed after the late Gus Schumacher, a USDA undersecretary in the Clinton administration who went on to champion FINI and other initiatives to improve nutrition in poor populations.
Another change in the bill that could reduce SNAP enrollment would eliminate “broad-based” categorical eligibility, a process states use to make people eligible for SNAP at income levels higher than the national standard. Recipients also would be required to submit actual utility bills for calculating benefits. A standard utility allowance would be eliminated.
In addition, the bill would add a requirement intended to ensure that SNAP recipients pay child support. Enforcing the provision is estimated to cost about $3 billion over 10 years.
To offset the impact of the tighter eligibility rules, the bill would increase asset limits for recipients and allow them to have a savings account of up to $2,000. The earned income deduction for calculating SNAP recipients’ net income would be increased from 20 percent to 22 percent to provide a greater incentive to work.
The bill would guarantee five months of transition benefits to individuals whose earnings have increased to the point that they are no longer eligible for cash assistance. Transition benefits are currently optional for states.
To help low-paid military personnel qualify for SNAP, the legislation would allow up to $500 of their monthly housing allowance to be excluded when calculating eligibility.
The bill would not require drug testing of SNAP recipients, an idea that has been pushed by some GOP lawmakers and governors, but a USDA spokesman confirmed Thursday that the department is considering allowing states to require drug tests for some participants:
“Under federal law, states may not drug test applicants for SNAP eligibility. Some states have expressed interest in employing drug tests for a limited amount of recipients who are receiving additional benefits, such as work training. It is USDA’s responsibility to ensure that states are properly administering SNAP programs and we are reviewing guidance on this topic for states expressing interest.”
The committee is scheduled to begin debate on the bill next Wednesday morning.
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