House Farm Bill undermines proposed SNAP E&T increase with expanded, ineffective work requirements

By Kermit Kaleba, April 13, 2018

Correction: The original post included incorrect information regarding time limits for individuals subject to work requirements and changes to WIOA state plan and partnership options; the post has been updated to address these errors.

The House Agriculture Committee yesterday released draft legislation – the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) – to reauthorize a range of federal agriculture and nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). The bill would expand funding for the SNAP Employment & Training (E&T) program, but undermines this investment with sweeping changes to SNAP eligibility that would likely result in millions of Americans losing access to basic food assistance.

The Good – Increased Investments in Employment and Training. The Farm Bill was last reauthorized in 2014 following a lengthy and difficult debate, with the original House version also calling for draconian eligibility changes that were ultimately rejected. The final 2014 legislation include a number of policy changes to strengthen and improve SNAP E&T, including restoring state Employment and Training Program grants to $90 million (from a cut to $79 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012); establishing new performance reporting requirements for SNAP E&T recipients; and investing $200 million in pilot grants to help ten states expand and improve their SNAP E&T programs.

The draft bill would build on some these important improvements in SNAP E&T, significantly increasing the state administrative grant program from the current $90 million for FY 2019, to $250 million in FY 2020, to $1 billion for FY 2021 and subsequent fiscal years. The minimum allocation for states would be increased from $50,000 to $100,000. The bill would eliminate grants that allocate $20 million per year to states that provide guaranteed access to employment and training services for individuals at risk of losing SNAP eligibility (often referred to as “pledge” states), and would replace this language with a new reservation of not more than $150 million per year that would be set aside for eligible training providers identified under section 122 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).The bill would also maintain the current “50-50” program that allows states and service providers to be reimbursed for certain costs of operating SNAP E&T programs. These proposed increases to SNAP E&T funding reflect growing bipartisan consensus on the value of investments in training and education to reduce poverty and help low-income individuals succeed in today’s labor market.

The bill would also amend current language relating to employment or training activities that can be used to satisfy eligibility requirements to include subsidized employment, apprenticeship, and unpaid or volunteer work, although the last category of activity is limited to six months out of any twelve-month period.

The Bad – Harsh and Unrealistic Work Requirements. While these changes represent an important step forward, the draft bill would significantly undermine any gains by expanding the number of SNAP recipients who would be subject to harsh new work requirements.

The House bill would expand hourly work requirements to a broader population of SNAP participants, would eliminate the current three-month grace period, and would effectively eliminate state flexibility to operate SNAP E&T programs on a voluntary basis – a key element of successful E&T programs across the country – instead mandating that all non-exempt participants engage in work or a training program in order to retain eligibility.

This is a major change from current law, which does not generally impose specific hourly requirements on SNAP participants, except for individuals known as Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (ABAWDs), who are individuals between the ages of 18-49 who do not have dependents, and who are not disabled.

ABAWDs are currently limited to three months of benefits in any 36-month period in which they do not participate in at least 80 hours of work or other qualifying activities. The House bill would expand hourly work requirements to a broader population of SNAP participants, and would effectively eliminate state flexibility to operate SNAP E&T programs on a voluntary basis – a key element of successful E&T programs across the country – and instead mandates that all non-exempt participants engage in work or a training program in order to retain eligibility. It also proposes stringent penalties for non-compliance with work requirements: a first violation would result in the loss of SNAP eligibility for twelve months, and a second violation would result in the loss of eligibility for 36 months.

The bill proposes to provide some protections for individuals by requiring a new mandatory level of service for all individuals who are subject to the expanded work requirements, including required case management services with individualized service plans. In some ways, this would be an improvement over current law, under which ABAWDs are not automatically guaranteed employment and training services, but there would be significant concerns about the capacity of states to provide meaningful levels of service. It is estimated that these new work requirements could impact up to seven million individuals per year, which will likely create significant capacity challenges for states seeking to create sufficient work or training opportunities for impacted participants; the most recent data for the federally-funded workforce system indicates that Title I-funded programs only served 6.8 million participants in Program Year 2015, meaning this expansion of work requirements could effectively double required service levels through the American Job Center network and other system partners. In addition, the new rules would require substantial new administrative capacity at the state and local level to help monitor and track individual participation in qualifying activities, making these programs far more cumbersome and costly for stakeholders to run.

While H.R. 2 does authorize a two-year transition period for states, and does provide some welcome resources for SNAP E&T, it is unrealistic to expect states to develop and implement high-quality workforce programming for this many individuals, particularly given the long-term decline in funding for WIOA training and adult education programs over the past two decades.

The Unknown – Where This Bill is Headed. The draft bill was introduced on a largely partisan basis, and it is not expected that Agriculture Committee Democrats will support the bill when the committee “marks up” the legislation, which may happen the week of April 16th. While the lack of Democratic support would likely not prevent committee passage, there is some question whether the House would be able to pass the legislation in its current form: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is urging members of her caucus to strongly oppose the bill if it comes up for a floor vote, and the conservative House Freedom Caucus has not yet indicated whether they will support the bill. Senate Agriculture Committee members have also indicated that they are less likely to pursue major changes in any farm bill they might introduce later this year, and it is almost certain that Senate Democrats would reject legislation that expanded work requirements for SNAP, making it difficult to advance legislation that would attract the 60 votes necessary in that chamber.

Further complicating the conversation, the Trump Administration has signaled their interest in pushing forward with potential regulatory changes that may lead to harsher work requirements across a range of public assistance programs, including SNAP: the White House issued an Executive Order earlier this week calling on federal agencies to review programs under their jurisdiction to identify opportunities to expand work requirements, and the US Department of Agriculture in February requested comments on potential changes to state waivers to current ABAWD time limits.

National Skills Coalition opposes the proposed legislation as currently drafted, and urges the committee to reject the proposed changes to SNAP eligibility and instead use this reauthorization process to build on the successes of the 2014 improvements to SNAP E&T. In an economy where more than 80 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education and training – and as many as half of all long-term SNAP participants have less than a high school diploma – it is more important than ever to make sure that all workers and businesses have access to the skills and credentials that are needed to sustain economic growth. National Skills Coalition released recommendations in November 2017 that the committee could consider as they seek to build employment opportunities through the Farm Bill; and we look forward to working with committee members to revise the bill to better reflect the needs of today’s labor market.