House Republican Farm Bill Proposal Launches a Dangerous Attack on Nutrition Assistance

A view of the U.S. Capitol dome, January 2018.

Yesterday, House Republicans released a draft of the 2018 Farm Bill, opening up another front on their ongoing attack on struggling Americans’ access to food assistance. The Farm Bill, which Congress must reauthorize by the fall, funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helped 41 million Americans put food on their tables in January and protected an estimated 8.4 million Americans from poverty in 2015. More than $8 in $10 in SNAP benefits go to households that include a child, a senior, or person with a disability. The program also helps make groceries affordable for workers who face low wages, shifting schedules, underemployment, and unstable incomes. These benefits don’t just mitigate hardship today; they also have significant positive effects on children’s health, educational attainment, and employment outcomes in the long-term.

In a departure from the Farm Bill’s bipartisan history, the draft released on Thursday was crafted behind closed doors by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) without buy-in from the committee’s Democrats. The bill would strip critical food assistance from millions of unemployed and employed workers by harshening SNAP’s time limits for certain adults and substantially reducing the number of individuals who are exempt from those time limits. It would also slash benefits for people who face high energy bills by eliminating SNAP’s “Heat and Eat” provision for certain households. It would dramatically curtail states’ option to offer “categorical eligibility,” thereby terminating benefit access or penalizing modest savings for millions of families. The bill would also restrict states’ ability to make decisions in response to their own economic conditions, all while making SNAP more difficult and costly for states to administer.

Majority members claim that their bill invests in job training and work programs for unemployed beneficiaries who are subject to SNAP’s time limit. But their proposed allotment of $1 billion annually is wholly insufficient to provide meaningful opportunities for the estimated 3 million people each month who will require a slot in order to continue to receive benefits. In practice, then, millions are likely to lose assistance under the Farm Bill––a particularly devastating development given that it comes on the heels of Congressional majority’s passage of a large and unpaid tax cut for millionaires and corporations.

Here’s how House Republicans’ highly partisan Farm Bill would slash SNAP funding and hurt American families under the guise of workforce development.

The proposal would take food away from families and effective options away from states

House majority members want to expand already-harsh time limits

The Farm Bill makes so-called work requirements—which function as harsh time limits that cause jobless, part-time, and even full-time workers to lose eligibility—even more punitive. The SNAP program already imposes time limits on working-age adults without dependents. Currently, these so-called ABAWDS—able-bodied adults without dependents—between the ages of 18 and 49 are only eligible to receive SNAP for three months out of every three years, unless they are consistently employed or in training for at least 20 hours per week. Already, the large majority of SNAP participants live in a household where at least one person is working, but their low wages aren’t enough to make ends meet. But others turn to SNAP when they experience lay-off and are searching for a new job or when an employer is not giving them enough hours. Still others face substantial barriers to work, such as homelessness, lack of affordable and quality child care, lack of transportation, substance misuse disorder, or a criminal record. The red tape and bureaucracy the time limit causes inevitably mean that even many SNAP-eligible workers who meet the requirement end up losing SNAP.

The House majority’s bill would tremendously expand the harshness and scope of these existing time limits. By 2021, it would expand work requirements to all nondisabled adults ages 50 to 59. While workers of all ages face barriers to work, such as access to transportation and low education levels, many older low-income Americans face impairments that prevent them from doing the harsh manual labor that low-wage work often entails. What’s more, time limits would also be applied to nondisabled adults caring for children older than age 6. This move ignores the caregiving duties and other barriers to steady employment that many of these parents and guardians face and subjects their children to greater risk of hunger. By 2026, the required hours of work to maintain food assistance increase from 20 hours per week to 25 hours. Those who are unable to find work or sufficient hours would not only face the time limit of three months in three years, but they would also be subject to a “lockout” period that cuts off benefits for a full year—even if their situation dramatically changes. Someone who is twice unable to meet the requirements under the policy will face a lockout period of three full years.

To make matters worse, the proposal would also restrict states’ ability to temporarily ease these time limits in areas that simply don’t have enough jobs. As a result, states would no longer have the same flexibility to replace a one-size-fits-all time limit in these areas with reasonable and locally tailored participation requirements. Because SNAP spending creates jobs in local communities, the loss of SNAP benefits will, due to the time limit, have a double-whammy effect in hard-hit areas: There will be fewer jobs and more residents without the assistance they need to purchase groceries.

So-called work requirements are not only punitive—they don’t work. It’s hardly surprising that taking away food assistance from jobless workers isn’t going to help them find work any faster—and might instead have the opposite effect. And indeed, research shows that taking away food assistance from people who are struggling to find work has produced little or no increase in their employment or earnings over the long term.

What’s more, expanding so-called work requirements creates new and expensive administrative burdens for states, which must spend precious dollars and staff time verifying people’s work hours rather than actually supporting them in their job search. Moreover, many workers who are eligible to continue receiving assistance would still lose their benefits due to burdensome paperwork requirements.

The proposal sharply curtails states’ important categorical eligibility option, taking food away from schoolchildren and working families

The proposed Farm Bill would also dramatically curtail states’ decades-old option of “categorical eligibility” for families who receive a benefit funded through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. Categorical eligibility allows states to provide nutritional assistance to more working families who are struggling to afford their groceries. It also gives states authority to streamline access to school meals for low-income schoolchildren and to relieve penalties on families who save small sums of money to move up the economic ladder. Categorical eligibility is one of many SNAP features designed to encourage work: It particularly helps low-income working households when their income approaches SNAP’s cutoff of 130 percent of the federal poverty level––or $1,702 a month for a family of three. While these families are earning income, they still face significant costs—such as child care, transportation, or medical expenses—that make it hard to afford food. Categorical eligibility is very popular with states; at least 40 states currently use it, in part because it reduces states’ administrative costs and saves taxpayers money.

When House Republicans last threatened categorical eligibility, the Congressional Budget Office—Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeepers—estimated that doing so would not only terminate SNAP benefits for nearly 2 million Americans, but would also cause 280,000 schoolchildren to lose access to the free school meals that stave off hunger and boost performance in school.

Eliminates “Heat and Eat” for many households

Categorical eligibility isn’t the only state option Rep. Conaway’s proposal would curb, leading to more paperwork and greater food insecurity. The proposal would also eliminate SNAP’s so-called “Heat and Eat” provision for households without elderly members. When a household’s SNAP benefits are calculated, the calculation takes into account that household’s necessary nonfood expenses. Households with higher out-of-pocket expenses have less left over each month to buy food, so they receive a larger SNAP benefit. But documenting all expenses can be difficult for households, and costly for the state to verify. To help streamline verification of energy expenses such as heating and electricity, low-income households in more than a dozen states participating in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can use their LIHEAP enrollment to prove that they face energy expenses—an option called “Heat and Eat.”

This option allows LIHEAP participants to receive SNAP’s modest standard allowance for utility costs without needing to show individual utility bills each month, which many participants would have difficulty producing. Eliminating it would mean many households—disproportionately ones that include people with disabilities—would see their SNAP benefits reduced. Without “Heat and Eat,” it is more likely that many households would need to choose between paying their energy bills and feeding their families, especially during the coldest or hottest months. At the same time, eliminating Heat and Eat would require more paperwork from both households and states.

The proposal creates a vast new mandate for states, which is substantially underfunded

The proposal would require that states provide work or training opportunities so that SNAP recipients could meet Rep. Conaway’s new work requirements. If implemented in good faith, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that states would become responsible for providing opportunities for an additional 3 million people each month. But the $1 billion that the Farm Bill would allot to job training and work programs each year is wholly inadequate. Indeed, CBPP finds that the Farm Bill’s investment in work programs amounts to just $28 per month per unemployed SNAP participant. That’s hardly enough to “guarantee access” for anyone who wants it, particularly when compared to the minimum of $3,000 it takes to fund a meaningful skill-building opportunity per person. It’s likely, then, that states won’t be equipped to provide anything but low-quality, dead-end opportunities for people who need work hours in order to receive SNAP or to help these individuals overcome the significant barriers to employment that many of them face.

It’s clear, then, that the House majority’s bill isn’t setting states up for job training success; rather, it is saddling states with a massively underfunded mandate. Such an underfunded obligation provides a perverse financial incentive to states, some of which could seek to kick families off of the program rather than fulfilling their costly new obligation. Funding for job training, then, would come at the expense of helping families put food on the table, putting a particularly unfair burden on families in the wake of a massive tax cut that primarily benefits millionaires and corporations. Congress added $1.5 trillion to the deficit to pay for these tax cuts, and now they’re leaving working families with the bill.

Don’t be fooled: Cuts will far outweigh modest improvements

The draft bill proposes a handful of modest changes—such as establishing new healthy food initiatives and raising SNAP’s earned income deduction—which would be steps in a positive direction. However, the pain of eligibility and benefit cuts would far outweigh any moderate benefits that these changes would bring; indeed, the changes to the earned income deduction, for example, which would lead to a slight increase in benefits for some families, is funded by the savings that result from other individuals’ loss of SNAP under the bill. What’s more, some of the apparent improvements in the Farm Bill are hardly improvements at all. While the Farm Bill substantially increases the maximum amount of savings and assets a household can have in order to still be eligible for SNAP, it also strips states of the ability to set their own eligibility criteria for savings and assets, including the states that have eliminated these counterproductive criteria in their entirety. All in all, the House majority’s Farm Bill proposal would leave millions of American families with less critical food assistance—or none at all.

An attack on two fronts

Rep. Conaway’s Farm Bill proposal isn’t an isolated threat to SNAP. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump has already also launched his own quiet but dangerous attack on nutrition assistance, instructing his Department of Agriculture to explore imposing harsher time limits on unemployed and underemployed ABAWDs and limiting states’ ability to use SNAP as a tool to combat high unemployment, including in the event of recession. Moreover, earlier this week, President Trump instructed agencies to explore adding work requirements to assistance programs that currently lack them.

The Trump administration’s budget also proposed directly slashing SNAP funding by more than 30 percent as well as transferring a large chunk of SNAP’s remaining funding into an untested, unworkable “Food Box” program that drew strong criticism from anti-hunger experts and even some skepticism from congressional Republicans.

Conclusion

House majority leaders claim they want to help families succeed in work, but by taking away categorical eligibility—which overwhelmingly helps struggling working households—they are punishing poorly compensated workers and their families. They claim to support “state flexibility” and “local control,” but their bill strips states of the ability to respond to their own local economic conditions as they deem best. They claim their punitive time limits are needed to push SNAP households into the labor market, but they refuse to acknowledge that the majority who are not children, elderly, or disabled are already working.

If Congressional Republicans’ goal were truly to help families succeed in work and earn enough to feed their families, they would support policies—like raising the minimum wage and requiring fair scheduling practices—that ensure wages and hours are sufficient to allow working families to put food on the table.

Rachel West is the Director of Poverty Research for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Eliza Schultz is the Research Associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center.