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House Republicans are pushing for stricter work requirements in the food stamp program, the first concrete legislative step this year targeting the nation’s public assistance programs.
The proposal was introduced over the objection of Democrats as part of the 2018 farm bill, which a House panel marked up Wednesday.
The legislation would dramatically expand mandatory state workforce training programs and would require all adults aged 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a training program in order to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The legislation budgets $1 billion per year to pay for the expansion.
The work requirements are projected to cut SNAP enrollment by up to 1 million people and would decrease spending on SNAP by $20 billion over 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said the provision is a commonsense revamp of SNAP and is critical to helping Americans feed their families. SNAP typically represents about 80 percent of farm bill spending.
“The farm bill also keeps faith with these families by not only maintaining SNAP benefits but by offering SNAP beneficiaries a springboard out of poverty to a good paying job, and opportunity for a better way of life for themselves and their families,” Conaway said.
Committee Republicans argue the $20 billion cut is offset by additional investments in the bill.
House Democrats, faith groups and advocacy organizations like the AARP have all blasted the work requirements as overly burdensome and unworkable.
“SNAP is one of the best anti-poverty programs we have, and the proposal would compromise its ability to remain as effective and efficient as it is,” said Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“This bill attempts to change SNAP from a feeding program to a work program,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.
Peterson, a moderate, said Conaway would not negotiate the work-requirement provision, ignoring the committee’s long history of bipartisanship.
“The bill rejects the testimony of 89 witnesses, and instead includes ideological language that will force people off of SNAP to pay for massive state bureaucracies that won’t work and are a waste of money. This legislation is based on false perceptions and ignores reality,” Peterson said.
Critics also say the mandatory employment assistance programs in the legislation aren’t adequately funded and would force food stamp recipients into the programs without enough support.
“If your access to food assistance is based on a guarantee the state is going to provide you with a [job-training] service, is there enough money to do it and do it well?” said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, an organization that advocates for workforce training programs.
“Good job training costs thousands of dollars per person, not dozens of dollars per person,” Kaleba said.
Workforce training programs have historically had bipartisan support, but Peterson said the farm bill would force millions more people into an underfunded state bureaucracy.
“There’s not a single person on my side of the committee that doesn’t recognize or appreciate the role of work as a pathway out of poverty,” Peterson said Wednesday, adding that he had “major reservations about the ability of states to pull off a work training program of this magnitude.”
There’s broad support among the GOP conference to change the federal safety net, and the farm bill was released on the heels of an administration executive order calling on various government agencies to craft new rules requiring that beneficiaries of a host of programs work or lose their benefits.
House Republicans see the provision as a way to encourage people to work their way out of poverty, and with control of Congress and the White House, conservatives have been hoping for a big legislative push to trim programs like food stamps and federal housing assistance.
Food stamp beneficiaries are already subject to work requirements. But with two sets of requirements for people with children and for childless adults, Republicans argue they’re too hard to enforce.
“Insufficient, vague and unenforceable work requirements — further undermined by loopholes to waive individuals from participating — dissuade employment and restrict opportunities for recipients,” according to a GOP committee fact sheet on the provision.
The farm bill would streamline the requirements. Those who fail to comply with the requirements would face a loss of benefits — the first failure would mean a loss of benefits for 12 months, and each subsequent failure would lock individuals out of the program for 36 months.
The legislation faces an uphill battle to becoming law, and it’s unclear if the bill will even pass the House.
Aside from Democratic opposition, conservatives want to curb spending on the bill even further and to strengthen the work requirements.
There is no Senate version of the legislation yet, but senators have pledged a bipartisan process to passing a farm bill through their chamber.
Fighting over food stamps nearly derailed the last farm bill. A failed House vote in 2013 forced lawmakers back to the negotiating table, and House and Senate leaders were ultimately able to pass a bill in 2014 that cut SNAP benefits by about 1 percent — $8 billion over 10 years.