Clash Over Nutrition Program Expected to Focus on Who Deserves Food Aid

Posted September 16, 2013 at 6:00am

Lawmakers can be expected to engage in a battle of images over deserving and undeserving food aid recipients when the revised nutrition title of the House farm bill comes to the floor, perhaps as soon as this week.

That may include an unemployed, lobster-eating California surfer and beneficiary who’s been highlighted by Fox News and become a favorite target for conservative bloggers.

Republicans will call for tightening work requirements to reduce the number of jobless, able-bodied people relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for help with food. The goal, they will say, is to reduce dependency and increase the number of people in the workforce or who are job-ready. They will argue that the most vulnerable — the elderly, the people with disabilities and single mothers with young children — will not be affected.

Democrats will argue that the bill includes financial incentives for states, which administer SNAP, to move people out of the program without guarantees of continued employment. They also likely will say entire households could lose food aid if a member no longer qualifies for SNAP.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he plans to put a nutrition bill on the floor this week that will propose up to $40 billion in reductions over 10 years to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The unnumbered bill is on the House schedule, but not on the Rules Committee’s Tuesday meeting schedule. There is still an air of uncertainty about when House Republicans and Democrats will clash on the floor.

Neither a draft nor a Congressional Budget Office score on the bill has been released. However, the Virginia Republican and House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., have said the measure will include the original $20.5 billion in spending cuts in the House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill (HR 1947) plus additional reductions from floor amendments the House approved in June. After the House rejected the committee bill, Cantor removed the nutrition title and the House approved an agriculture-only farm bill in July.

House leaders have made a floor vote on the nutrition bill a prerequisite before naming members to a conference committee with the Senate. The Senate has passed its farm bill (S 954) and appointed 12 negotiators.

Republicans supporting the proposal will talk about the value of work and the need for states to adopt changes similar to those in the 1996 welfare overhaul (PL 104-193) to get unemployed SNAP recipients into jobs or work-related activities.

They also are likely to follow Cantor’s lead in citing the unemployed California surfer as a rationale for ending states’ ability to extend SNAP food benefits to childless, single, able-bodied adults for longer than three months out of every 36 months. The recipients under scrutiny are between the ages of 18 and 50.

Under federal law, states can ask for and receive authority from the federal government to continue benefits for people in areas of high unemployment. In 2013, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either full or partial waivers. The number is down from 49 states and the District of Columbia in 2012. The House nutrition bill is likely to end state waivers and enforce the three-month limit.

The surfer, unnamed in a memo Cantor circulated to GOP lawmakers earlier this month, is Jason Greenslate, 29. A Fox News report in August highlighted Greenslate, an unemployed musician perpetually in a cap and sunglasses, buying lobster rolls with $200-a-month benefits and laughing at the idea of a 9-to-5 job.

Conservative bloggers quickly cited Greenslate as a prime example of a flawed government program. But Democrats will counter that Greenslate is atypical of SNAP recipients, and they are expected to highlight more sympathetic beneficiaries.

As they have in the past, Democrats and anti-hunger groups will note that 45 percent of SNAP recipients are under the age of 18 and 9 percent are 60 or older. In more than 30 percent of SNAP households, someone was employed and bringing in income. As a group, single, childless adults are generally ineligible for other state or local cash assistance, anti-hunger groups say.

Greenslate, who did not respond to CQ Roll Call emails requesting an interview, generated enough attention to spur Kevin Concannon, the Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, to write the head of the California Department of Social Services. In an Aug. 22 letter, Concannon wrote, “While such an individual is technically and legally able to access nutrition assistance, there can be no doubt that continued participation without a commensurate commitment to find employment is inconsistent with SNAP’s mission and purpose in providing a temporary safety net for those who truly need help.”

Concannon suggested that county officials speak with Greenslate, who was unnamed in the letter, to remind him of his obligations to work if he is able.

In an August broadcast interview, Greenslate said he was not a slacker and had worked in the past. He said money from past jobs in retail and as a pro skater, snowboarder and surfer and his SNAP benefits allowed him to concentrate on his getting his band, Ratliffe, signed with a label.

“I can spend time focusing on a career instead of a 9-to-5 dead-end [job]. If you work a minimum wage, you’re not going to be paying for your mortgage, you can’t buy a car. Living in San Diego, you can barely pay the rent,” Greenslate said.