A congressional hearing on SNAP “program integrity” provided a snapshot of the debate over the most controversial aspect of the proposed House farm bill – that in order to receive benefits, all able-bodied adults between 18 and 59 years of age work or be in an approved training program for at least 20 hours per week.

Republicans touted the requirement, which caused a kerfuffle in the House Agriculture Committee the same day the farm bill was approved on a 26-20 party-line vote. Democrats called it mean-spirited and borderline racist, while Republicans said they wanted to reduce waste in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and incentivize work.

The discussion before two subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee proceeded similarly. Healthcare, Benefits, and Administrative Rules Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, imagined a situation where two employed people – a second-shift worker and a second-grade teacher – leave their neighborhoods for work and spot an unemployed man drinking coffee on his front porch, collecting benefits without doing a thing.

The working people, he said, would be “ticked off.”

“If you’re getting a benefit from the government, you should do something to receive that,” said Jordan, whose support for the bill is considered critical because he is a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

But that raised the ire of Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, D-N.J., who said the discussion at the hearing did not take into account the issues of fairness and equality.

“I am offended when we make assumptions about people who we think are able-bodied,” she said. “The richest country in the world needs to spread some of that generosity to those who need it the most. No one should be questioned whether they’re eligible for a $1.40 a meal,” the average benefit derived from the average monthly SNAP allocation of $126.

In addition to the new work requirements, the farm bill would make it more difficult for states to get waivers that would allow non-working individuals to receive benefits.

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 USDA grants a waiver from the requirements.

The bill’s provisions are likely to increase the number of SNAP recipients subject to the work rules from 3.5 million now, 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.

Jordan noted that in 2017, state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin and Alaska admitted to False Claims Act violations for fraudulently reporting low error rates in order to receive bonuses from USDA.

“Combined, they repaid over 16 million dollars in fraudulently earned bonuses,” Jordan said. “Other state agencies are still being investigated. But the problem is more widespread than that.”

Brandon Lipps, USDA's acting deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said USDA is working to remove bias from the SNAP Quality Control system and expects to publish a new error rate for fiscal 2017 by June 30. He emphasized that the QC system does not measure fraud, but improper payments – both underpayments and overpayments.

The agency did not publish error rates for fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, urged the lawmakers to analyze the effectiveness of work pilot programs enacted in the 2014 farm bill before enacting an “expensive, risky approach” that would force states to create large new bureaucracies.

Dean said more SNAP beneficiaries than ever before are working. Data from 2011-2013 analyzed by the group show that 52 percent of non-disabled, non-elderly SNAP participants were working while they received benefits, and 74 percent were working within a year.

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