GOP sees a path out of poverty, but SNAP defenders see a scam

Millions of poor Americans will gain the opportunity for a better way of life if Congress toughens the work requirements for SNAP recipients and offers job training to them, says conservative Texas Rep. Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. The Republican-controlled panel could approve Conaway’s restructuring of the largest U.S. anti-hunger program today, clearing the politically charged bill for an election-year floor vote.

SNAP reform is the headline issue of the wide-ranging, five-year farm bill sponsored by Conaway. The farm bill also would eliminate the first USDA green-payment program and loosen weak federal rules over who can claim farm subsidies and how much they get. The bill is estimated to cost nearly $87 billion a year, with food stamps running at $65 billion annually.

Conaway’s plan, “a springboard out of poverty into a good-paying job,” would require as many as 8 million “work capable” adults to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equal amount of time in workfare or job training programs to qualify for food stamps. States would be given $1 billion a year to pay for the training and employment service programs. An estimated 3 million people a year would be assigned to them.

“This is going to help more Americans out of poverty, and it’s going to help more Americans into the workforce while maintaining support for those in need,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, among a chorus of GOP supporters. The bill dovetails with President Trump’s executive order on April 10 for new or stricter work requirements as part of federal welfare programs.

But the bill’s opponents disagree with Republicans’ outlook. “Make no mistake; this bill will make hunger worse in this country. Reject this Republican scam,” said Massachusetts Rep Jim McGovern, a leading proponent of SNAP. “This partisan Republican proposal was drafted in secret. Almost nothing in the bill reflects the 23 hearings our Committee held on SNAP.” McGovern has vowed an all-out fight against radical changes to SNAP.

Democrats may save the fireworks for House debate on the bill. Only a handful of amendments were filed by Monday night for possible consideration during “mark up” of the farm bill and none of them came from Democrats. Nor did any of the 20 amendments apply to SNAP.

“You can’t fix a bad bill,” said the senior Democrat on the committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, during a radio interview on Monday. “We’re going to ask a bunch of questions and vote no.”

The White House points to the experience of Maine and Kansas, states with Republican governors, as recent proof that work requirements for able-bodied adults without children pay off in higher income. “More states have noticed and are leading the charge to provide greater opportunities to their citizens,” says a White House fact sheet. “Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin are currently implementing work requirements.”

The work requirement proposed by Conaway would apply to adults aged 18-59 years but would exempt the elderly, disabled people, pregnant women or adults caring for children under age 6. Children, the elderly and disabled people account for the majority of SNAP recipients.

A million people are expected to disappear from SNAP over 10 years under Conaway’s plan, because, according to Conaway aides, they get better-paying jobs, don’t work enough hours, or drop out of the training program. An additional 300,000 people could lose benefits under a proposal to end so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, according to an informal estimate given to Democratic staff workers on the Agriculture Committee. Categorical eligibility allows people to apply for SNAP regardless of assets. Beyond that, perhaps 200,000 households could be affected by the elimination of the state option to allow food stamps to people with an income above 130 percent of poverty.

A think tank says the Conaway package provides too little money for states to run high-quality training programs but will create bookkeeping rules that will trip and then disqualify SNAP participants. Millions of people will have to report their work hours each month with the risk of losing benefits if they are tardy or if state agencies record their work inaccurately, said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Under its ‘one strike and you’re out’ provision, an individual who didn’t meet all its new requirements within a month of receiving SNAP would be kicked off the program for an entire year. A second infraction would mean a loss of benefits for three years. Creating this level of food insecurity will not improve a worker’s ability to find employment, but it could leave millions of Americans one mistake away from losing the help they need to buy food,” said the CBPP. “Individuals could only regain their eligibility by working at least half-time for a month or re-qualify through an exemption, such as disability.”

Farm supports and the federally subsidized crop insurance program would see few changes in the farm bill. Farm groups made a strong crop insurance program their top goal in the bill. Six insurance industry groups, from insurers to agents, told Conaway in a letter on Tuesday “we look forward to working with you both to get a Farm Bill with a strong crop insurance title across the finish line this year.”

The bill would give grain and soybean growers their first chance in five year to change subsidy programs. Analysts expect a stampede into the traditionally structured Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program from the insurance-like Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program. PLC is more likely to trigger USDA payments during a period of sustained low commodity prices than ARC.

The bill would give the USDA the power to declare a rural health emergency, “making it easier to award grants and loans to community health facilities and telehealth programs,” said the Daily Yonder. “The bill doesn’t name any specific type of health emergency, but it does say that grants and loans to facilities providing ‘recovery services’ would be a priority.” The emergency provision would apply to 1 percent of overall spending in the farm bill.