Access to food stamps for millions of people hangs in the balance as Congress negotiates two disparate versions of the farm bill.
Last week, the House passed a bill that calls for significant cuts to the federal food stamp program, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
On Thursday, when the Senate passed its version of the bill, those same cuts were handily rejected. Now, the two versions of the massive piece of legislation must reconcile their differences in conference before heading to the president for signature.
The House’s version of H.R. 2 expands the work requirements that guarantee a person’s access to food stamps. The changes would impact an estimated five to seven million Americans, drawing fire from many advocates.
“We know this is going to make more people go hungry,” Daniela Ogden with the California Association of Food Banks said about the House bill.
Must Work for Food
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents between 18 and 49 years old must work at least 20 hours per week or be enrolled in an approved job-training program for a minimum of 80 hours per month to remain eligible for benefits. Failing to meet these requirements means that an individual can only receive three months of benefits in a three-year period.
The House bill would tighten these work requirements. Falling short of the standards for just one month would result in losing benefits for a full year. Getting back to a 20-hour-a-week work schedule would allow someone to reenroll in benefits, but if they then falter again on the work requirements, the second month of non-compliance would have them barred from food stamps for three years.
“This work requirement is an experiment. There’s never been a rule like this that says you go hungry for 12 months, 24 months, 36 months if you don’t work for one month,” said Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Time limits have been a part of SNAP since the program was created in 1996, but the proposed changes would cut more than $20 billion in food stamp funding over the next 10 years while committing an additional $1 billion per year into job training programs to help states accommodate individuals’ new work requirements.
Some advocates say this move is inconsistent with the aim of SNAP.
“SNAP isn’t a jobs program. It’s a program that feeds people. And it does a really good job at that,” Ogden said.
Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, said increased access to education and workforce development services is good policy, but tying it in such a way to public assistance is not conducive to productive programming.
High-quality educational programs generally need set start and end dates, he explained; it wouldn’t work to have folks enrolling mid-curriculum based on their individual eligibility needs.
“It’s very difficult to build training programs around these artificial deadlines,” Kaleba said. “You end up making a lot of ‘make-work’ opportunities just so people can stay on benefits.”
The training provided in these types of trainings doesn’t always line up with what employers need. Most would rather see programs that actually instill job-seekers with pertinent skills and competencies, not those that just serve to meet work requirements, according to Kaleba.
These kinds of programs, though, are expensive. While the $1 billion investment in SNAP-related employment and training programs in the House Bill may look meaty, that money actually amounts to just $30 per month per person — not nearly enough to fund high-quality services for all who could need them in order to maintain benefits, according to advocacy groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Senate bill dedicates $185 million in new funding to expand employment and training pilots authorized in the 2014 farm bill. That would include testing some new strategies, including work-based learning programs, intensive sector-based approaches and career pathways that prepare workers for specific occupations.
Out of Foster Care, Into Food Insecurity
The stricter time limits would pose a tough challenge for young adults pursuing a college degree, as extended summer and winter breaks when school is not in session could result in the loss of benefits. This is especially problematic for former foster youth who often don’t have a familial safety net to turn to in such times.
Bartholow pointed to research around student hunger and said that reducing college students’ access to nutrition assistance “undermines our investment in education for low-income students.”
A recent study looking at 33,000 community college campuses across 24 states showed that 55 percent of students with a history in foster care had experienced extreme food insecurity, compared to just one-third of students who had never been in foster care.
Whether in school, in the workforce, or just figuring it out, transition-aged foster youth face a number of barriers to progressing on the same trajectory as their non-systems involved peers. High levels of trauma and instability lead to higher rates of unemployment and often interrupted matriculations through college – a major study of educational outcomes for former foster youth found that while nearly 40 percent complete one year of college by age 24, only 6 percent have earned a degree by that time.
Foster youth who age out of care are less likely to be employed than their non-systems involved counterparts, according to a major study of outcomes for foster youth. As many as a third remain disconnected from the labor market at age 24. Those who are working earn significantly less than young adults with no history in care.
Low-income families with children also stand to lose significant benefits under the House version of the bill. H.R. 2 would extend the work requirements to parents caring for children older than 6. Historically, any adult caring for a minor was exempt.
Making child-rearing parents subject to SNAP’s time limits means children could lose nutrition benefits for as long as three years if their parents aren’t able to meet the work requirements each month.
Nearly 20 million children across the country rely on SNAP to provide an adequate diet, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly half of all SNAP recipients are children, and another 20 percent are the adults caring for these youth. Most families on SNAP have at least one working adult in the home but don’t earn enough to afford enough healthy foods, according to Ogden.
This decrease in access to adequate healthy foods has the potential to result in an uptick in calls to child protective services. Economic neglect — like not providing sufficient food for your child — is one of the predominant reasons parents lose their kids to foster care, according to Bartholow.
“Every time we make the program less able to meet the needs of low-income families, we increase the chances we may see those children in the foster care system for the sole reason that the family is not able to afford their care,” Bartholow said.
As it is, the monthly benefits provided by SNAP aren’t sufficient to feed many families. Ogden said that in California about a third of SNAP recipients still end up at food banks at the end of the month, relying on donated goods to tide them over until next month’s check. The idea of cutting benefits even more is “really scary,” she said.
The next stop for the farm bill is the conference committee, where the significant differences between the two bills must be ironed out. The SNAP work requirements will undoubtedly be a part of that discussion.
For his part, President Trump has indicated support for the House bill’s work requirements, and in a statement said the Senate’s omission of these requirements a “missed opportunity,” but he stopped short of threatening to veto a farm bill that does not include them.
President Trump has been adamant in demanding an on-time farm bill — the deadline is September 30 — but the conference committee has their work cut out for them.
As the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said on the Senate floor Thursday, “We know conference committee is going to be a wild and woolly debate as we go forward on a number of things.”