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Lawmakers steer toward food stamp clash on work requirements

‘Food insecurity in rural America is higher than it’s ever been’

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., the chairman of a Senate Agriculture's subcommittee, will lead a hearing Wednesday on food stamps.
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., the chairman of a Senate Agriculture's subcommittee, will lead a hearing Wednesday on food stamps. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers, as they work on the 2023 farm bill, are staking out positions on nutrition and food stamps — the Agriculture Department’s biggest single program and a perennial source of contention.

The draft bill may still be months away, but Republican members of Congress have already said they want to toughen eligibility rules for some recipients, revisit the benefits they provide and provide more flexibility to accommodate indigenous groups’ traditional foods. Those decisions are likely to have a ripple effect on school nutrition programs that aren’t part of the farm bill but aid low-income families that qualify for food stamps.

Now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program feeds about 42.5 million people, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated it will cost about $127 billion in fiscal 2023, down about $21 billion from fiscal 2022.

The 2023 farm bill debate has been unfolding in a series of House and Senate Agriculture committee hearings, and conflicts are already emerging months before the Sept. 30 expiration of the current law .

Rep. Dusty Johnson wants to expand the number of food stamp recipients subject to work requirements and time-limited food benefits by raising the age of people covered by the rules to 65. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack riled up congressional Republicans with a steep increase in benefits provided in fiscal 2022 after a review of the adequacy of the monthly payments to buy nutritious foods and to cope with surging food prices coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Members are writing the bill against the backdrop of extraordinary uncertainty in the economy. Inflation, including the cost of food, is so high that the Federal Reserve is willing to risk recession to slow price rises. Economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are lingering. The robust labor market is expected to weaken in the months ahead, primarily because of the Fed’s willingness to raise interest rates.

And House Republicans are demanding spending cuts as a condition to raise the debt ceiling, itself a marker of potential economic turmoil ahead. The Republican Main Street Caucus urged Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to consider including Johnson’s bill as part of the House GOP’s debt ceiling proposals. 

Lawmakers have a fine line to walk in dealing with SNAP, which has often been a flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans who differ on the program’s spending levels and ultimate goals. 

In 2018, the House GOP saw its bill go down to defeat on the floor because about 30 Republicans joined Democrats to vote against it. Moderate Republicans were opposed to SNAP changes or other provisions, while conservative House Freedom Caucus members used the vote to voice dissatisfaction with leadership over immigration. The House squeaked the bill to passage, 213-211, in a subsequent vote. Anti-hunger organizations and farm groups want to avoid a similar cliffhanger in a Congress where Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House.

Advocates defend the program as an effective tool against hunger and poverty, while agriculture groups stress the need for a farm bill with SNAP proposals acceptable to a majority in each chamber. 

“As in the rest of the nation, I want to emphasize that SNAP is the biggest and most efficient tool we have for fighting hunger,” Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas, the state association for 21 food banks, said at a Texas field hearing. “In the broader ecosystem of hunger relief, it is doing the heavy lift. For every meal that the food banks put on the table in Texas, SNAP puts nine.”

Cole said cuts to SNAP will increase pressure on food banks to fill the gap. She added that Texas has the second-largest SNAP program in the country. 

Eric Ooms, New York Farm Bureau vice president, included a nod to SNAP as relevant to small towns and communities during an April House Agriculture farm bill listening session in Binghamton, N.Y. 

“When it comes to rural America, we talk about SNAP and everybody thinks that’s a city thing and it is, but it also is a rural America [thing],” he said. “Food insecurity in rural America is higher than it’s ever been.”

Work requirements and waivers

Johnson, R-S.D., who chairs the Republican Main Street Caucus, says Congress should raise the age of SNAP recipients subject to work requirements to 65, up from 49 today. He would also limit states’ ability to waive the requirements. His bill would allow for exceptions for those medically certified as unfit for work; a person with responsibility for a dependent less than 7 years old, up from 6 years; and pregnant women.

The bill would repeal some waiver authorities, although he said states would still have the ability to exempt up to 12 percent of able-bodied adults subject to time limits on food aid.

Johnson rejected criticism of the measure. “American families need our help. There’s no question about that,” he said at a March hearing. “Their plight is not helped by the kind of fearmongering we’ve heard.”

Cole, at the Texas food bank group, said work requirements don’t deliver long-term benefits. 

“Instead of receiving job training or up-skilling that could help someone increase their earnings or services to remove barriers to employment …. they are encouraged to take the first job that’s there  even if  it won’t lead to long-term stability,” she said. “We encourage you to eliminate counterproductive work requirements for SNAP participants and also encourage you to expand SNAP for low-income college students. By helping students finish college, SNAP actually can be an effective tool for improving employment outcomes.”    

SNAP already requires recipients to work and limits food assistance to three of every 36 months for able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 without dependents. And Johnson said he’s willing to negotiate the age limit for adults, but he hopes the committee considers his bill as it drafts the Nutrition title of the farm bill. 

The 2018 farm bill’s 45-page Nutrition title includes a two-paragraph section that has stirred up Republicans in the current Congress. The section directed the Agriculture secretary to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis of food stamp benefits, by 2022 and then every five years.

The department decided to boost SNAP benefits by 21 percent as of October 2021. 

‘Delicate balance of the farm bill coalition’

Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., told department officials in February that their decision would “disrupt the delicate balance of the farm bill coalition.” He and other committee Republicans also questioned the department’s authority to raise the benefit without consulting Congress.

Boozman, referring to a Congressional Budget Office projection, said SNAP could account for more than 80 percent of spending authorized by a farm bill, up from about two-thirds. The CBO projection put total spending on food stamps at $1.2 trillion over 10 years. 

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said at a March hearing that the 2018 farm law directed the USDA to update the benefits to reflect food prices, consumption patterns, dietary guidance and food composition data.

Lawmakers can of course revise the food stamp benefit and change the Thrifty Food Plan, but, with the increase already in place, the onus is now on them to take action. The divided Congress makes it extremely unlikely that both sides would agree on such changes. 

“Cut SNAP for families and kids while pushing tax cuts for billionaires? Not on my watch,” Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., the chairman of Senate Agriculture’s subcommittee on food and nutrition, said in a statement ahead of a subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is pushing for greater availability of indigenous foods in USDA nutrition programs, particularly the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The current farm bill authorized several pilots under the program that allow tribal agencies or governments more authority to operate the program and select the types of foods to be distributed. 

Smith has said she wants the upcoming farm bill to extend permanent authority to all tribes interested in  operating  the distribution program on reservation lands. Smith said in March that providing full authority to tribes over the programs means they “can plan, can conduct and can administer them, including [procuring] native food.”  

Smith also is reviewing legal obstacles that prevent tribal agencies from operating other food programs on reservations. Native Americans who qualify can participate in the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, SNAP and school meal programs. State agencies have the authority to run those programs on reservations but tribal agencies do not. 

Lawmakers’ decisions on food stamps will have a direct effect not just on the recipients themselves but also on the retailers that serve them. Cole, at the group of Texas food banks, said the end of emergency pandemic aid is already having an impact. 

“Texas retailers, in particular those located in rural communities with lots of mom and pop grocers and smaller food stores are feeling the impact of those cuts as well,” she said at the Texas hearing. “I encourage you to keep the importance of SNAP and the adequacy of those benefits top of mind throughout those farm bill discussions.”

School meal programs, although not part of the farm bill, could be affected by changes to SNAP that either expand or tighten eligibility requirements. Some children receive “categorical eligibility” to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or breakfasts because their household income qualifies them for SNAP.  

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