WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the most contested issues in the proposed U.S. House farm bill as written by the Republican members of its Agriculture Committee revolves around the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
New language adds work requirements for any “able-bodied” adult between 18-59 years old who does not have children under age 6 at home. The adult would be required to work 20 hours a week or receive training or education toward finding employment.
According to Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chair of the committee, states would have the ability to offer waivers for the work requirement as well as flexibility to tailor plans to fit the needs of each state.
Democrats argue that the language reduces benefits to low-income residents and increases paperwork that would put pressure on states to monitor work requirements. According to the Congressional Budget Office, recipients who match the work requirements but don’t comply would lose an annual benefit of about $1,800 on average by 2028.
Others argue that the work requirements don’t go far enough.
During a conversation at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Conaway said they tried to put together the best policy possible, ignoring what it would cost, from what has worked in the past, what didn’t work and how the SNAP program could be made better.
“I believe it’s the first time policy has led the product rather than being skewed by the CBO score,” Conaway said. “The path to prosperity is paved through hard work.”
He said he wants to help people who want to get off government assistance. He wants the policy to help the most number of people find and keep jobs because “long-term dependence on programs of any kind is not the American dream.” He said most states already have job creation programs in place. The new provisions would add to their programs.
Jason Turner, executive director of Secretaries’ Innovation Group, said the bill needs changes. Single moms who work full-time don’t get six years of maternity leave, and single parents receiving SNAP shouldn’t receive waivers that allow them to stay home until the child is in school.
He said the bill helps address fraud in the SNAP program, but he would like it to go further. If a card is lost more than twice, a recipient should have to go into the office for verification of their identity.
“The reality of this bill falls very short of how it’s being presented,” said Robert Rector, senior research fellow for domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation.
He said about 15 million work-capable adults receive SNAP benefits. About one-third of them already work more than 20 hours a week. Of the remaining 10 million, the work requirements would impact only about 2 million because everyone else will be eligible for exceptions.
About 5 million people will be eligible for geographic waivers, which the proposed bill doesn’t address at all, Rector said. If the geographical waiver was removed, about 7 million people would be required to get work, he said.
Geographic waivers are eligible for communities where states have determined there is not adequate work available within the geographical area. Rector said about half of current SNAP recipients live in waived areas. Most of the boroughs of New York City are waived because of geography, he said.
The history of work requirements shows that, almost every time, employment increases and applications for SNAP decrease, he said. When people are on the program, they leave it more quickly.
Rector added that the most effective deterrent to poverty is marriage, but the SNAP bill remains hostile toward marriage, cutting benefits when a couple marries. He suggested that the cuts might remain, but transfer the work requirement to one spouse rather than both.
Angela Rachidi, research fellow in poverty studies at AEI, thinks the proposed bill is a step forward in refocusing SNAP on work, but there are problems with the bill and she doesn’t think a bill with a work requirement like the one proposed will get through the Senate.
She said the work requirement hours would require states to focus more on tracking hours, increasing paperwork and labor needs for the programs. She said Conaway was right, in that states can try to experiment with things like restricting sugary beverages from SNAP benefits, but each instance needs to be approved – so far, the USDA has rejected all requests.
The proposed bill would not change the approval process, Rachidi said. “It's very disappointing. Obesity is a bigger problem in this country than hunger … The goal of SNAP is to improve nutrition. I think it’s okay to ban certain things.”
Conaway said he thinks lawmakers will have the Republican votes needed to approve the bill in the House. So far, he said the Democrats have voiced objections, sometimes good objections, but have proposed no amendments to the bill.
Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats and Republicans continue to work on the bill together but have not released any details. Each chamber will need to pass its version of the bill, and reconcile differences in conference before the bill can be given to President Trump to sign into law.
Conaway thinks it will happen in 2018 – but said he knows the bill that lands on the President’s desk will not be the same bill that passed out of the House Ag Committee several weeks ago.