Farm bill fails: Work requirements for food stamps, welfare benefits still on the table

    FILE -The House of Representatives rejected a farm bill, Fri. May 18, 2018. The bill included stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients. (Photo: MGN via USDA)

    After three days of debate and years of work, the House of Representatives rejected the $867 billion farm bill that included a provision to impose stricter work requirements on recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps or SNAP.

    The farm bill was expected to pass on a strict party-line vote until 30 Republicans rebelled and voted with the entire Democratic caucus in voting it down.

    For Democratic opponents, SNAP was the sticking point. After the bill failed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., denounced the bill "cruel," "destructive" and "heartless," and called on both parties to return to the negotiating table to rewrite a bill with bipartisan support.

    The Congressional Black Caucus claimed the work requirements would "ensure that more Americans go hungry," claiming the GOP changes to SNAP would result in 2 million people losing access to food stamps.

    The defeat of the farm bill and SNAP provision may only be a temporary setback for Republicans who continue to pursue broader agenda of welfare reform.

    The GOP rebellion Friday came from two groups, fiscal conservatives opposed to the high level of government spending in the farm bill and a group of more than two-dozen representatives who threatened earlier this week to block the farm bill until they were guaranteed a vote on immigration and border security.

    It is not clear how many Republican no votes were fundamentally against the bill, but Republican leaders said they will forge ahead.

    "We may be down, but we're not out," said Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, saying the committee will regroup to deliver a "strong, new farm bill."

    Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters the House effort is not over. "We’re going to continue until we get it done," he said.

    Kristina Rasmussen is the vice president of federal affairs at the Foundation for Government Accountability and works with policymakers to implement comprehensive welfare reform. She said Friday's vote was disappointing but only "delays" a reform that has broad support in the conservative House.

    "I know that a lot of the fiscal conservatives understood this was a generation-setting welfare reform and they understood that these work requirements were really significant progress in improving the system," Rasmussen said. "It's disappointing there was this last-minute hiccup, but there is still time to get the job done."

    The controversial work requirement in the farm bill was part of the GOP's bigger welfare reform agenda to limit the number of able-bodied, employable people on government assistance. It is also aimed at reducing government spending on welfare programs, which will exceed $1 trillion annually by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

    Despite overwhelming Democratic opposition to the food stamp proposal, recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support a part-time work requirement for government benefits.

    A Foundation for Government Accountability study found an overwhelming 90 percent of respondents supported requiring able-bodied, working-age adults to work, train or volunteer part-time (20 hours per week) to receive government benefits. A Heritage Foundation poll found similar levels of support across party lines.

    Poll on work requirements for government assistance (

    Another poll found 65 percent of respondents who said adults without children should be limited to three months of food stamps if they are not working or in job training.

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are approximately 40.7 million Americans currently receiving food assistance through the SNAP program, down from 43.6 million in 2017. The majority of those recipients (around two-thirds) are elderly, disabled or children and cannot work. Most others are working poor.

    In 2017, USDA estimated close to 7 percent of food stamp recipients were unemployed despite being able-bodied and not having children under the age of 6. The Foundation for Government Accountability believes the number could actually be as high as 12 million people.

    Even as the number of SNAP recipients has declined from their record highs during the Great Recession, the number of eligible recipients has increased, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Before the recession, approximately 75 percent of eligible recipients were getting food stamps. Despite a continuous decline in U.S. unemployment, the number of eligible recipients has increased to 83 percent.

    Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, suggested the discussion of work requirements in the context of food stamps may have only been an opening salvo for a much broader debate about government benefits.

    "Work requirement discussions will continue in SNAP. They will continue to be raised in states where some are pursuing waivers to Medicaid to implement work requirements. They're being discussed more in public housing," she said. "So there's definitely an interest in work requirements writ large."

    The White House is driving that interest with new rules and authorizations. For example, President Donald Trump recently granted waivers to Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky allowing them to impose work requirements on certain Medicaid recipients, and seven other states are seeking a similar waiver.

    In April, Trump signed a sweeping executive order calling on federal agencies to fully enforce existing work requirements for people receiving government benefits. The order applies to eight federal agencies, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Education. Those agencies were given a July deadline to review existing requirements and recommend ways to "streamline" programs and reduce waste and abuse.

    Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has already begun making recommendations, including a piece of controversial legislation to allow public housing agencies and project owners to establish work requirements for tenants.

    In the larger conversation about work requirements, Waxman advised against oversimplifying the reasons some welfare recipients are not working, which can include poor literacy, a criminal conviction or the uncertain nature of many low-paying jobs.

    "You want people to not need these benefits because they have meaningful income and opportunities," she stressed. "You don't want to just decrease the use of government benefits by pushing people off and not having reasonable alternatives." That, she added, was one of the issues with the SNAP reform.

    The SNAP provision effectively sought to turn a food assistance program into an employment assistance program. Fundamentally, the failed farm bill would have cut more than $23 billion in food stamp benefits and reallocated the money to job training and workforce education, which would become mandatory for unemployed food stamp recipients.

    Under current law, non-disabled, working-age individuals (18 to 59-years-old) who do not have children under the age of 6, must register to work in their state to get food stamps. The state then determines who among the registered is exempt and who must meet the work requirement of 20 hours per week of employment, job training or education. SNAP recipients have three months to prove they are complying with the work requirement. Otherwise, they become ineligible for food stamp benefits for three years.

    The new law kept many of those provisions but would have required all individuals to meet the 20-hour per week work requirement and given them one month to comply before losing eligibility. It limited state's ability to opt out or waive the work requirement and limited states ability to waive another requirement that cuts off benefits to individuals earning above 130 percent of the poverty level, or $26,600 per year for a family of three.

    The bill also added approximately $5 billion to the nutrition assistance program over five years to fund new education and job training programs and cover the costs of administration and verifying SNAP recipients' eligibility.

    According to Waxman, the level of investment sounds promising, but it is not likely to cover the actual costs of job training.

    "In theory that sounds good, because it sounds like you're providing a meaningful option for people to access the skill development that would move them into work and get them out of poverty," she said.

    According to Urban Institute research, as many as 9.8 million people would likely be subject to the new work requirements and approximately half of them would need assistance. That would leave only $200 per person per year, compared to typical employment training programs that cost upward of $3,000 per person per year.

    "When you do the math, a significant number of people are going to need those slots," she noted. "So you weren't necessarily being set up for success, even though on the face of it it seems quite reasonable."

    It is not clear when the House leadership might reschedule the vote on the farm bill or how much of the bill will change when it goes back to the Agriculture Committee. The Senate is currently working on their own farm bill. The Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee has said he wants the bill to be bipartisan, so it likely will not include food stamp work requirements.

    Even with public support for able-bodied work requirements, Congress may not act. In that case, Rasmussen explained, the agencies and the White House have opportunities to strengthen eligibility rules.

    "I think the executive branch was giving Congress some space to advance a new farm bill, but if they're not going to that in a timely fashion it does give room for the USDA to more aggressively pursue the implementation of the changes," she said.

    USDA recently announced a rule that would make mandatory the agency's existing 20-hour per week work requirement for all able-bodied adults who do not have young children. The agency is also looking at ways to address fraud and change the standards for broad-based categorical eligibility.

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