Every five years, Congress is tasked with reauthorizing the Farm Bill. And every five years Congress fights over the same issue: how to deal with the bulk of the bill’s spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP, the $70 billion food stamp program, accounts for 80 percent of the Farm Bill budget. SNAP is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) but administered by state governments.
More than 43.6 million people in the U.S. received food stamps as of April 2016, compared to 32 million in 2009, a 35 percent increase. That accounts for about 13.5 percent of the U.S. population.
As Congress deliberates over SNAP, farmers express frustration over partisan maneuvering that they argue distracts from the original purpose of the bill: to assist farmers affected by price fluctuations, drought, flooding, wildfire or other natural disasters. The bill expanded to include environmental conservation and water quality, rural development and forestry management, and food stamps.
Funding is set to expire Sept. 30. The House Committee on Agriculture passed a mark up of the Agriculture & Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) on party lines on April 18. The bill is scheduled for a full House vote. The Congressional Budget Office’s baseline for the 2018 Farm Bill is $112 billion less than the 2014 Farm Bill.
The legislation has received criticism from conservationists because it cuts funding for working land conservations (including the Conservation Stewardship Program that now protects over 70 million acres nationwide) and many long-standing subsidy payment limitations for the largest farms.
Farmers and lobbyists from various groups appear to concur with the assessment of Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. He stated that what the committee passed is “wholly inadequate for providing family farmers with resources they need to endure the worst decline in the farm economy in decades.”
Since the last Farm Bill was reauthorized, many producers have experienced a 50 percent income drop because of flagging commodity prices. Some have sustained significant losses from hurricanes, drought, and wildfires. Others fear their goods may be targeted by retaliatory tariffs because of recent trade policies President Donald Trump has announced.
With these cuts came the prioritization of a stricter work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries.
Committee Chairman, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, advanced a version that requires most adults between the ages of 18 and 59 to work part time or enroll in 20 hours a week of workforce training in order to receive SNAP. The bill allocates $1 billion per year to fund the proposal.
Conaway’s proposal comes after work-requirement policies were announced by the Trump administration. Last December, the USDA stated that it would work with states to “promote self-sufficiency” and give them greater local control over SNAP.
Trump’s 2019 budget proposal replaces half of the food stamp benefits with “Harvest Boxes” (shelf-stable foods) and seeks to cut SNAP by over $200 billion over the next decade.
SNAP was originally meant for individuals receiving actual cash welfare, those who support overhauling the program argue. And the work requirement does not go far enough, they argue, especially since it is the first time in decades that the Farm Bill is being written by Republicans who control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Reform advocates point out that the work requirement won’t be effective unless revising how income derived from work is assessed. They maintain that legislators are ignoring two equally serious problems: closing a loophole to strengthen asset and income verification, and penalizing states that provide SNAP benefits to illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens.
The American Enterprise Institute estimates that roughly 9 million people, or one-fifth of SNAP recipients, are able-bodied and not working. SNAP already requires childless adults to work under the provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. However, states often are granted waivers of the federal work requirement.
Groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Foundation for Government Accountability, and the American Enterprise Institute argue that Congress should drop the state waiver provision altogether.
Equally important to the work requirement are states’ noncompliance with federal asset requirements, the Foundation for Government Accountability argues. According to its Asset Report, more than 30 states are using a loophole that puts “truly vulnerable citizens at risk.”
Federal law “limits assets of food stamp recipients in order to preserve limited resources for the truly needy.” If state legislatures implement “asset tests to the federal baseline, taxpayers could save more than $7 billion nationally,” it states.
“Under state law, anyone applying for food stamps whose income is below a certain threshold can qualify for food stamps, regardless of their wealth or assets,” Jonathan Ingram, The foundation’s vice president of research, said. “This exploits a federal loophole – first implemented by the Clinton administration and supercharged by the Obama administration – that allows anyone receiving a TANF ‘benefit’ to qualify for food stamps as ‘categorically eligible,’ meaning the state doesn’t even need to check assets.”
A Minnesota couple recently disclosed that they collected about $6,000 in food stamp benefits despite having assets that categorized them as millionaires. They told a Minnesota House committee that they did it to prove a point: not everyone receiving food stamps should be.
Income also is not compared equally between U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants, the Center for Immigration Studies asserts. It argues that illegal immigrants receive food stamps through SNAP, “while identical all-citizen families of the same size and with the same income do not receive them.” In its report, the center attests that states administering SNAP “pick and choose” among benefit-determination methods. Most states, it argues, “have chosen a technique that does not record some of the earnings of illegal aliens, while always recording all the income of citizens.”
In 2013, the House attempted to pass the Farm Bill in two parts, one that addressed providing relief to farmers and another that addressed problems with SNAP. The Senate rejected them both, combining parts of the two and proposing a take-it-or-leave-it bill that the House was forced to agree on in order for the bill to pass.
This year, it appears that House efforts may witness a similar result. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is expected to release his version of the bill next month, told reporters that he has no plans to make any significant changes to SNAP.
“I think we can make efficiencies, but we’re not going to drastically change that program,” he said.
This article was first published on Watchdog.org.