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Extremists At Work: The Fate of SNAP in the Farm Bill

Ilana Novick

Just as much as farm subsidies, the debates over the current version of the Farm Bill have involved funding for SNAP benefits, mostly in the form of proposals to cut them, making it even harder for America's working poor to access essential benefits. 

Under current law, able-bodied adults without young children can only access SNAP benefits if they are working at least 20 hours per week, are looking for work, or are in a qualified job-training program and earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Don't meet any of those requirements? Then the limit is three months out of every three years, acording to a recent article from the Kansas Health Institute News Service

Of course, even the most conservative lawmakers were willing to offer exemptions to loosen the rules following the 2008 recession that made the previously reasonable requirements much harder to meet. Now, however, Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp suggested an amendment that would not only eliminate the exemption, but make it mandatory for each state to adopt stiffer work requirements

While, as Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, few are arguing that reasonable requirements aren't important, there is a huge difference between: "1) Requiring people to try to find jobs, to take jobs that are offered, and not to quit jobs, and 2) Denying benefits to people who do everything they can to get jobs but can’t find them...The former is reasonable. The latter is not."

While Huelskamp's amendment eventually failed prior to the June 20th vote on the Farm Bill, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), proposed another amendment that would allow states to introduce requirements that force most adults who already receive or are planning to apply for SNAP, including parents with children as young as 1 year old and, unlike the current requirements, many Americans with disabilities, to work 20 hours per week or participate in a job training program or else risk having their families benefits cut off entirely.

There's not even a three months in three years limit here, nor does the bill provide any funding for said job training programs or suggestions on how applicants might find one.

Even worse, as a recent blog post for the CBPP points out, The Secretary of Agriculture would be required to pay a “bonus grant” to each state in “an amount equal to half of the accumulated [SNAP] benefit dollars saved over each consecutive 12-month period, according to the evaluation" which as a result, means that states would actually receive bonus money for cutting off SNAP benefits. 

Such incentives undermine SNAP's core goals. It also perpetuates myths about SNAP users, ignoring the fact that the benefits are often accessed during temporary periods of unemployment, especially after recent layoffs, and that enrollees leave the program after finding new work, especially in times where said work is available.

Not to mention, as CBPP does, that "SNAP already includes a harsh time limit on unemployed childless adults, which the Southerland provision would make more draconian by terminating states’ ability to suspend this time limit during periods of very high unemployment."

While the version of the Farm Bill with the Southerland amendment was defeated on June 20th, it was merely a narrow miss. The amendment has enough support to suggest that it will be included in the next version. There's a lot of work to do between now and then to break down the myths that support its popularity, and to ensure that even if the amendment survives, a Farm Bill with it doesn't.