The federal farm bill that recently passed the House Agriculture Committee on a bitter party-line vote is strikingly inhumane, even for this harsh era. Rather than trying to improve food-for-the-poor efforts such as California's CalFresh, it would begin those programs' dismantlement. The bill would smother food aid in unprecedented levels of bureaucracy and give states overwhelming incentives to deny assistance to families in need.
It was not always this way. For generations, the House and Senate Agriculture committees were among the most pragmatic, least partisan, places in Congress. Rural Republicans and Democrats worked together on programs little-appreciated by urban and suburban members of Congress. But they also took seriously their stewardship over food assistance programs, both as a means of securing urban support for farm bills and as a moral responsibility to direct some of our agricultural abundance to care for the most vulnerable among us.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and California Democrat Rep. Leon E. Panetta teamed up in 1985 to add a sensible work requirement to the food aid program — recipients had to be employed, or if states required it, participate in a job search, training or workfare program. The very conservative Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) steadfastly defended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, formerly food stamps — when he chaired the Agriculture Committee.
Now Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee are adding a different "work requirement" to SNAP. In fact, the legislation would deny food assistance to the unemployed. People who through no fault of their own could not find work, or enough hours of work, would become ineligible for the program. They would miss out not only on a paycheck but on food too.
The 2018 farm bill envisions that states will step up to offer slots in work programs to those unable to find private employment, but that clearly will not happen. States cannot establish the massive work programs that would be required to serve the unemployed among the 40 million people receiving food assistance each month. Even after accounting for the 44% of recipients that are children, the 12% that are elderly, the 9% that are disabled, and those who have sufficient private employment to meet the new requirement, states would still have to create millions of slots each month.
The bureaucracy required to provide those slots would be massive, reversing a decades-long trend of sharply reducing administrative overhead in food aid programs. Each work slot would entail a referral, a place for the recipient to work and a supervisor. For many kinds of work, equipment or protective clothing would be needed. And because the most employable SNAP recipients turn over rapidly — leaving SNAP after an average of eight months during good economic times — these steps would need to be repeated over and over.
States have repeatedly demonstrated that they will not build this kind of massive work program.
A 1996 welfare law required states to show that half of their caseloads were engaged in work at least 20 hours a week. Rather than establish work programs to meet the requirement, as the law's supporters anticipated, states instead took advantage of a provision that allowed them to have fewer people working if they sharply reduced their welfare rolls. Unfortunately, bureaucratic maneuvers to push needy people off the rolls are all too easy. Twenty years later, only 15,007 welfare recipients are in "workfare" programs in an average month nationwide.
The 2018 farm bill would add to this sort of bureaucratic nightmare an onerous reporting requirement. Every month, all recipients' eligibility would have to be reevaluated. The bill would also eliminate the modest margin for error that states have under current audit procedures, with draconian penalties for states whose evaluations weren't precisely correct. (Improper denials of eligible households would not count toward the error rates for which states are penalized.) During the 1980s, a similar but more limited monthly reporting rule caused large numbers of eligible, needy families to be cut off each month as paperwork got lost in the mail, piled up on the desks of vacationing staff, or fell victim to misfires in automated systems.
SNAP is far from perfect, but it serves a vital public purpose. It provides a basic nutritional foundation for tens of millions of people when they are at their neediest. It deserves better than this.
David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown University, where he studies poverty and inequality.