House Republicans are holding the farm bill hostage by insisting on stricter work requirements for millions of people who depend on food stamps to supplement their meager incomes.
Never mind that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program already has the strictest work requirements of any federal program for low-income Americans.
Never mind that the food stamp rolls have fallen by 2 million people in the past year or that average payment to households still receiving aid fell $20 a month over the past five years. The average individual benefit is down to $1.40 a meal.
Never mind that despite the low unemployment rate, nearly a quarter of Americans still struggle to feed their families at some point during the year, according to a new Urban Institute survey. Food affordability has become the single biggest financial headache for the 40% of families who report problems in meeting their basic needs.
Never mind that food insecurity and poor nutrition are a primary cause of chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension that disproportionately afflict the working poor.
Never mind that community and hospital programs that address food insecurity are reducing healthcare costs. “When patients go to a food pharmacy and get counseling on how to eat well on a budget of less than $10 a day, their costs are 10% to 15% lower,” said Randy Oostra, CEO of Toledo, Ohio-based ProMedica and chair of the Root Cause Coalition, which was formed three years ago to address hunger and other social issues that affect health.
Never mind that the evidence still isn't in from the 10 work-requirement pilot projects that were set up by Congress five years ago—the last time it reauthorized the farm bill. Adopting stricter work requirements now amounts to evidence-free legislating.
Never mind that the bill containing the work requirements that narrowly passed the House in June was so toxic that 20 Republicans defected while no Democrats voted in favor. The Senate's version of the bill, which did not include the new requirements, passed 86-11.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is retiring from Congress, is leading the charge to impose stricter work requirements. “There are more than 12 million able-bodied Americans who do NOT have small kids at home, are NOT in school, and are NOT looking for work,” he tweeted in July. “A mild work/school requirement of 20-hours/week to receive government assistance is as reasonable and common sense as it gets.”
That ignores the fact that SNAP already requires able-bodied people under 60 to work part-time or participate in job-training programs. And if they are under 50 without children, they already face a limit of receiving food stamps for just three months within three years if they don't work at least 80 hours a month.
The House-passed bill would raise the age for the 80-hour work requirement to 60 and shorten eligibility to just one month if they fail to meet the test. The Congressional Budget Office estimates about 2 million people would lose benefits under the law.
Why do SNAP rolls remain well above where they were before the Great Recession? More and more jobs in our economy are part-time and very low wage.
More than 80% of adults receiving SNAP benefits work at some point during the year. Typical occupations include home health and teacher aides, retail and restaurant workers and seasonal workers in construction and on farms.
In other words, SNAP isn't a handout to the lazy. Like Obamacare, it is effectively a subsidy program for employers who pay low wages.
Senate and House conferees are slated to meet after Labor Day to reconcile their competing versions of the farm bill. Hopefully, the facts about food stamps will intrude on their discussions.