House Republicans proposed a plan Wednesday for raising the federal debt ceiling that would also expand work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to able-bodied adults as old as 55. 

The bill released Wednesday also would prevent states from carrying over exemptions from the work requirements from one year to the next.  

The work requirements now apply to adults up to 49. The GOP proposal is more modest than a measure introduced by Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., that would have expanded the work requirements to people as old as 65 and to parents with children over 6. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the GOP bill would ensure that “adults without dependents earn a paycheck and learn new skills.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., didn't mention the SNAP issue in a statement on the bill.

“The Biden administration’s reckless spending has caused inflation and the national debt to climb to unimaginable heights, and American families continue to feel pain from the gas pump to the grocery store,” Thompson said. “The Limit, Save, Grow Act is a sensible proposal for raising the debt ceiling, which reins in federal spending and invests taxpayer dollars more wisely.”

Thompson told Agri-Pulse on Tuesday that addressing the issue in the debt-ceiling negotiations could keep it out of the farm bill debate.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told farm broadcasters on Wednesday that work requirements should be addressed during the farm bill debate rather than as part of the debt ceiling negotiations.

Later, at a Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on SNAP, she said that any modifications to the work rules should have bipartisan support and be “evidence-based.” 

The top Republican on the nutrition subcommittee, Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he plans to introduce a bill called the HAND UP Act, to ensure SNAP is implemented in a way that “measurably improves the employment outcomes of able-bodied Americans.” He said his bill will help connect SNAP recipients with work by requiring states focus on outcome measures in their employment and training programs.  

States currently can seek waivers of the work requirements that limit SNAP benefits to just three months over three years if participants are not working, volunteering or participating in a work program for at least 80 hours per month. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service can temporarily waive the able-bodied adults with dependents three-month time limit based on evidence showing that an area has an unemployment rate of over 10% or does not have a sufficient number of jobs.

Waivers can be issued regionally or statewide. During the most recent quarter, 27 states do not have a waiver, nine have partial waivers, and 17,  including New York and California, have statewide waivers. 

Braun’s bill would require states to submit waiver applications for individual labor market areas, rather than entire states.

“By requiring more granularity in the waiver process, my bill would ensure that state agencies don’t shirk their responsibility to connect their SNAP recipients to long-term employment opportunities,” Braun said.

Heather Reynolds, executive director of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, told the senators that as Congress picks up the discussion on the farm bill, “we need to be less focused on work requirements and more focused on evidence-based reform that will give people a way out of poverty. Seventy-five percent of SNAP recipients who are not disabled or elderly already work."

Reynolds said Congress should scale-up evidence-based solutions. “We have the employment and training programs designed to increase the employment prospects of SNAP recipient,” she said, but in 2016, only 3.3% of SNAP recipients who were subject to work requirements participated. “States are not incentivized to invest in these programs,” she said.

Braun’s HAND UP Act would direct USDA to maintain a clearinghouse for evidence-based practices for SNAP Employment and Training programs that Braun said are proven to improve employment outcomes.

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Reynolds said clearinghouses would verify the validity and strength of the research. “This combination of legislation requirements plus a well-run clearinghouse shows us a path forward as policymakers. We need you allocating public policy dollars to allow these evidence-based services to scale because they work,” she said.

James Whitford, executive director of Watered Gardens, a homeless shelter in Joplin, Missouri, that provides immediate employment and help with future employment, said successful exits out of the facility have dropped in recent years.

Prior to the pandemic the shelter was seeing about 63% to 64% of those who entered the shelter without a job, leaving with one. Now they’re struggling to get people back into the workforce where just 40% of those coming into the shelter are leaving with a job, Whitford said.

Whitford said measuring evidence-based programs and measuring outcomes are “incredibly important.” He said measuring outcomes is important to private charities and should also be for government programs.

Ty Jones Cox, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said that “harsh work requirements rely on faulty assumptions. Research shows that taking benefits away from people doesn't help them find jobs, it just leaves them and their families with less money for food.” The average SNAP benefit is just $6 per day.

She cited a recent peer-reviewed study which showed that the SNAP time limit reduced participation in the program by 53%, with no effect on employment. But it did find that SNAP participation was reduced by 7% to 32% a year after the time limit was reinstated, Cox said.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who chairs the subcommittee, said he hopes Congress will “keep the research and the actual data in mind as we write this year’s farm bill.”

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