Lawmakers are charting a path for addressing food assistance work requirements in the next farm bill even as the existing rules are set to come back into force May 11 with the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s time limit on nutrition assistance will return to just three months in any 36-month period for those able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) ages 18-49.

The requirement applies to SNAP recipients who don’t live with minor children and aren’t disabled or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week. The work requirements were suspended early in the pandemic in 2020.

Katherine Hempstead, senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said food insecurity is likely to rise due to the end of SNAP emergency allotments and the return of work requirements.

“At a time when the unemployment rate is low and more people are entering the labor force, the image raised by some of millions sitting on their couches and living on government benefits is a sharp disconnect with reality,” Hempstead said.

The issue was brought to the forefront by the introduction of a recent marker bill for upcoming farm bill consideration from a House Ag Committee Republican. 

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., is proposing to expand the work requirements to able-bodied adults as old as 65 and parents with children 7 years of age and under. Parents or caregivers with a child under 18 are currently exempt. Johnson denied the bill was aimed at cutting the cost of SNAP. He said it would improve the lives of families by bringing more able-bodied adults into the workforce. 

Similar provisions snarled congressional action on the 2018 farm bill before they were stripped in the final negotiations. 

Dusty JohnsonRep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D.

The Center for Law and Social Policy contends Johnson’s proposal is “counterproductive” and undermines the mission of ending food insecurity.

CLSP cites USDA data finding the proposal would affect at least 5 million additional adults, including parents to over 10 million school-aged children.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., has introduced a similar bill, the Let’s Get to Work Act, that would expand the work requirements to those under the age of 60 and parents with children over the age of 6.

Meanwhile, Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Alma Adams, D-N.C., responded to the GOP bills with a proposal supported by other Democrats to eliminate the work requirements. In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Lee said it is “downright cruel to make people go hungry” with the three-month time limit.

“The attempt to try to tie SNAP participation with labor market incentives is not only wrong but counterproductive to helping struggling families. Our legislation would not only fight hunger and poverty in our communities, it would increase access to healthy food for all,” Lee said.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee and staunch nutrition assistance advocate, argues against tightening the work rules.

In 89% of SNAP households with children and at least one non-disabled adult, at least one member of the household worked in the year prior to or after receiving SNAP, McGovern said in a letter to colleagues. “Many people on SNAP who work still qualify for benefits because their wages are too low. If we want to move more people off SNAP, we need to make work pay,” McGovern said in the letter.

McGovern said the ABAWD population includes as many as 100,000 veterans as well as many teens who are aging out of foster care and homeless individuals.   

“Independent studies have repeatedly shown that SNAP’s ABAWD work rule does not increase employment or earnings, but it does cut people off from the benefits they need to afford food,” McGovern wrote.

ABAWDs have to be actively seeking employment, volunteer or enrolled in employment training programs. Transportation remains a challenge, especially in rural areas, as well as child care. McGovern also said the proposals to limit the ABAWD exemptions to only those with dependents under age 7 will create a day care challenge for many working parents or caregivers.

Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP deputy director at the Food Research & Action Center, said some states operate few or no employment programs and fail to offer SNAP recipients a spot in a work or training program — which is the case in most states. In those states, ABAWDs “will have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job,” she said.

Parker Gilkesson, CLASP senior policy analyst for income and work supports, and Teon Hayes, CLASP policy analyst for income and work supports, told Agri-Pulse research shows work requirements don’t lead to permanent employment or provide long-term economic stability. Both countered the common talking point that SNAP should be a “hand-up, not a handout.”

“We are providing a structure and a foundation for everyone to thrive. I don't think we should see that as a handout for everyone being able to have access to their basic needs: sufficient food, affordable and nutritious food, affordable housing. Those things should not be viewed as handouts,” said Hayes.

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Johnson, the South Dakota Republican, noted his bill will allow for states to continue to request waivers and allows states to have flexibility in how they implement waivers. But the legislation eliminates states' ability to carry over exemption waivers from year to year. “We do understand some populations are hard to serve,” Johnson recognized as 12% of state caseloads are eligible for work requirement exemptions.

Speaking at the Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Summit, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reiterated that any focus on SNAP work requirements from Congress should also look at struggles associated with low-paying jobs or jobs that don’t provide enough hours for a livable wage.

Vilsack_Summit_23_1.jpgAg Secretary Tom Vilsack

In a prerecorded interview played at the summit, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., stopped short of endorsing Johnson’s bill but recognized there would be proposals around SNAP introduced by House Republican members.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member David Scott, D-Ga., took a definitive stand against Johnson’s proposal. “There is no way that we are going to accept any cuts in this program,” he said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has previously cautioned against cuts to the nutrition title, arguing such spending restrictions would be matched in other areas of the farm bill.

McGovern said if Republicans continue down the path Johnson is proposing on stricter work requirements, “it will be impossible to pass a farm bill.”

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