BREAKING: House conservatives determined to get a vote on a hard-line immigration measure sank a Republican farm bill Friday. The farm bill incorporated stringent new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, that were decdired by anti-poverty experts as punitive and ineffective.
Friday's vote was 198-213. Democrats were unanimously opposed, the bill was killed by the House extreme right-wing caucus, which had demanded a vote on a restrictive immigration bill. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisc., said the farm bill might be rescheduled for a vote, but the timing is uncertain.
We subjected the food stamp provisions to close analysis on April 18. Our column from that date is here:
The desire of some members of Congress to find ways to make the lives of America's neediest ever more difficult got a full airing Wednesday, in the form of a markup of a bill covering, among other things, the food stamp program.
The bill, which was released by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) only in late March, would cut food stamp benefits by a net of more than $17 billion over ten years. The government spent about $70 billion in fiscal 2017 on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — the formal name for the food stamp program — but the budget and the case load have been falling since 2012 as the effects of the recession ebb. The SNAP provisions are part of the 2018 farm bill, which also covers crop supports, soil conservation, rural infrastructure and other agriculture programs.
The bulk of the proposed SNAP benefit cuts would come from the imposition of stricter work requirements on SNAP recipients — accounting for $9.2 billion of the estimated $23.1 billion in benefit cuts. (The cuts would be partially offset by less than $6 billion in benefit improvements, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.) Criticism of the GOP approach by Democrats and anti-poverty advocates has focused on the work rules, as is proper.
Indeed, that criticism has been so intense that the work rules seem destined to destroy any chance that the farm bill, as it stands, could pass the Senate; it's not clear it could even pass the House. Why write it this way?
Work rules for recipients of public assistance, like drug testing, are conservative shibboleths. They're based on the notion that the people who benefit from these programs are the "able-bodied" layabouts and malingerers who only need a swift kick to get off the couch and go to work. Historically, they've been denigrated as the "undeserving poor."
Make no mistake, there is a strong racial component to this viewpoint. "The images of 'able-bodied' men not working are of African American men," Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) observed during the markup. Noting that the bill could force 1.6 million beneficiaries off the SNAP rolls, he called it "hurtful, deceitful and un-American."
Work requirements generally haven't been shown to have any material effect on the needy population. For the most part, that's because the vast majority of beneficiaries already are working; they're just in low-wage or part-time jobs that leave them unable to provide for some basic necessities of life.
Of those who are unemployed, the vast majority have a good reason. As the Kaiser Family Foundation determined by surveying nonworking Medicaid enrollees, 36% of the 9.8 million were ill or disabled, 30% were family or home caregivers, 15% were going to school, and 9% were retired. That left 6% who could not find work and 3% who were unemployed for "other" reasons.
Conaway's work proposals for SNAP are especially punitive and administratively counterproductive. SNAP already has work requirements for the population of "able-bodied" adult recipients without dependents. They're required to work or participate in a work program for at least 80 hours per month; those who go three months without meeting the standards face loss of benefits.
But this is a small and exceptionally disadvantaged group. According to official statistics, nearly two-thirds of the roughly 46 million people receiving SNAP benefits in 2015 were children, elderly or disabled. About 9% were nondisabled childless adults ages 18 through 49; their average income was about 33% of the federal poverty level, or $334 per month. And contrary to the conservatives' picture of a vast population living the high life on food stamps for their entire lives, most were on SNAP only for short periods — only 2% of those on SNAP for eight years or more were nondisabled childless adults. Their average monthly food stamp benefit came to $163, or $5.43 a day.
Conaway would tighten the screws on these "high-living" folks. His plan would would require nondisabled childless recipients ages 18 through 59 to work or attend a work program at least 20 hours a week and prove every month that they're meeting the numbers.
The rules fail to recognize that the marginally employed have variable work schedules that are harder to meet on a weekly rather than monthly basis. Currently, they have to verify their eligibility to state officials every six months, so changing to monthly verification means more of a burden on them and more expense and hassle for the states. Those who don't meet the monthly test would lose benefits for a full year for the first failure, and for 36 months for every subsequent failure.
What's most cynical about the Conaway approach is the claim that the measure will fund a jobs program that will cover the needs of unemployed beneficiaries. Employment training programs typically cost $3,000 per year per trainee; that's $9 billion a year for the 3 million SNAP beneficiaries estimated to need training; the bill would appropriate $7.6 billion for 10 years for the states. "States will be unable to provide the services expected of them" for SNAP clients, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said at the markup. "It is very likely that states will just take steps to cut them off altogether."
Imposing work requirements on SNAP fundamentally undermines the program's purpose. Just as good health is a prerequisite to useful employment, so is good nutrition. Making unemployment an obstacle to getting a decent meal turns this obvious truism on its head. But the advocates of the SNAP cutbacks plainly don't care. It's proper to remember that these are the same lawmakers who passed a $1.5-trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. The SNAP cuts are just another proposal for sticking the working class and the poor with the bill.