WASHINGTON, August 2, 2017 - Alongside new spending for cotton and dairy producers and demands for increased conservation funding, proposals to clamp down on unemployed food stamp recipients also could become a challenging issue as lawmakers look to write a new farm bill.

A group of House conservatives are demanding that the bill tighten work requirements for able-bodied beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “It is not fair to the American taxpayer for us to continue to give benefits if someone can work,” says the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Tex., is pledging that the bill will tighten the SNAP job rules but hasn’t said how far he’ll go. It’s not an easy challenge. Conaway has to do enough to keep those same conservatives from trying to block the farm bill, or to try to split nutrition programs from the legislation, a move that could weaken the urban-rural coalition traditionally needed to pass farm bills. 

At the same time, tightening SNAP work requirements could make it more difficult to win Democratic support in the House and Senate.

The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, tells Agri-Pulse it’s premature to change the work rules because the Agriculture Department is in the middle of a series of pilot projects that are testing different approaches for moving SNAP recipients into jobs or higher-paid employment.

But Stabenow stopped short of ruling out any changes in the work rules. “I want to solve real problems, not just somebodys ideological position. So well listen to see if there are real problems to solve,” she said.

The pilot projects are underway in 10 states – California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia and Washington – using funding authorized by the 2014 farm bill. An interim report on the projects is not due until 2019, with the final evaluation to follow in 2021.

Conaway hopes there will be some early data for lawmakers to use. “We’re still looking to see if there is anything we can glean from those” pilot projects, he told Agri-Pulse.

As a general rule, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can be out of work for only three months out of every three years and still receive SNAP benefits. There are exceptions: States can and do receive waivers from the rule during periods of high employment, and states also can exempt up to 15 percent of their ABAWDs from the time limit.

SNAP recipients also can meet the work requirement if they are taking part in a qualified education and training program for at least 80 hours a month.

Seven states plus the District of Columbia currently have waivers from USDA from the work requirement, and portions of 26 other states have waivers. Seventeen states have no waivers. To obtain a waiver, states must show that unemployment is high or that there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Having an unemployment rate of more than 10 percent is one way to qualify for a waiver.

Conaway hasn’t said how he wants to toughen the current work rules. One step Congress could take is to end the waivers from the work requirements or make it harder for states or regions of states to get them. But eliminating the waivers would hit many states that President Trump carried in 2016, including Alaska and Louisiana, which both have statewide waivers. Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia all have partial waivers, according to the latest USDA report.

Mark Meadows

House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows

Meanwhile, Meadows and other conservatives are pushing for even tougher requirements which they’ve managed to put into bills this year that have the support of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has long been critical of SNAP.

Bills sponsored by the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would not only eliminate the state waivers but also require adults who are caring for children to work at least 100 hours a month. Married couples could split the work requirement so one parent could stay at home with the children while the other worked. Single parents with a child under 6 would be exempt.

For SNAP recipients without dependents the amount of time they could be out of work and receive benefits would be cut from three months in every three years to one month.

Tougher work rules would presumably force people off the SNAP rolls, cutting the program’s overall cost, but Conaway says he’ll use any savings to provide expanded benefits for people who are transitioning into jobs or have a chance to get increased pay. He argues that the potential loss of benefits under current rules discourages people from trying to increase earnings.

Conaway said he wants to “stair-step down the resources that are provided by food stamps as a beneficiary’s resources go up.”

But anti-hunger groups argue that the proposed work requirements would hurt the poor and that there already are adequate incentives within the program to make working more advantageous than unemployment.

For one thing, the first 20 percent of earned income isn’t counted when SNAP benefits are calculated. (The idea is that some of a working person’s income is needed to pay for transportation and other costs of holding a job.) In addition, SNAP benefits are phased down as income increases to ensure that the combination of increased income and lower SNAP benefits is worth more than staying unemployed or turning down a raise, advocates say.

States also have the option through a process called “broad-based categorical eligibility” to raise the maximum income levels for getting SNAP benefits. Normally, the maximum is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,184 a month for a family of three. States have the option of raising the limit to 200 percent of poverty, and many have.

Because of SNAPs benefit structure, participants are almost always better off taking a job, accepting more hours, or making a higher wage,” Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a blog post. “SNAP thus encourages work and plays an important role in disrupting the cycle of poverty.”