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SNAP in trouble in the Farm Bill

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

Don’t just kick the tires. Look under the hood. This year’s Farm Bill (the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018) may look attractive at first glance, but closer scrutiny reveals that it would eliminate food assistance for 2 million vulnerable Americans.   

SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), our most important anti-hunger program, will lose $23 billion over the next ten years if this legislation in its present form passes. That is why faith-based organizations like Bread for the World and Faith in Public Life are up in arms.

This bill, HR 2, has now cleared the House Agriculture Committee with a 26-24 vote along party lines, and it is expected to reach the House floor this month. The fact that it maintains and improves international food aid is a big plus; its big minus is what it would mean for SNAP — first, cuts in benefits and eligibility and second, even stricter work requirements.

On the benefits and eligibility front, severe changes in this bill would hit several categories of the American public especially hard — older adults (due to an average of five months longer unemployed for job seekers over 55 than for younger ones), single mothers whose children are over six years old, certain low-income military families, people in rural communities and the working poor. It limits the ability of states to waive eligibility requirements for young people who are aging out of foster care and for regions with unusually high unemployment rates.  

It also worsens the threat of the “benefit cliff.” To be eligible now, net monthly income (after deduction for high housing costs and child care) must be less than or equal to the poverty line ($1,702 a month or $20,400 a year for a three person family). Strikers, college students, certain legal immigrants, and all undocumented residents are not eligible regardless of how little income they have. Under the new bill, low income families could immediately lose the benefit with even a slight increase in income. Unemployed SNAP applicants would have 30 days to find a job or enter a work training program or be dropped from the program.  An unhelpful bureaucracy with insufficient funding would be needed in every state.

The second concern is the bill’s needless expansion of an already tight work requirement and addition of harsh new penalties for those falling short of the work requirement. Under current regulations, able-bodied adults ages 18-50 who do not have children and are not pregnant can only get SNAP benefits for three months in a three-year period. To get benefits for more than three months, they must be working at least 20 hours a week or be attending education or workfare training for at least 20 hours a week or be doing volunteer service for at least 20 hours a week.  

It seems obvious that the program already encourages work. And David Beckham, president of the non-partisan Christian anti-hunger advocacy organization, agrees that work is “a cornerstone of our society” and that adults who can work should. However, he disagrees with the expansion of the work requirement to individuals with school-age children and all people ages 18 to 59 (instead of 50). The bill would add to those required to attend job readiness programs, but the lack of additional funding for this purpose would not support the expensive training and tracking programs needed to actually get people into jobs.

Beckham adds that “today’s evidence” does not demonstrate that strict work requirements on assistance programs, such as SNAP, effectively reduce poverty. The record shows that in 2015, for example, 4.6 million people were lifted out of poverty by this program in its present form. For a typical month in 2017, SNAP helped more than 40 million people afford a nutritionally adequate diet.   

What recipients get on average is $126 a month; $4.20 a day; $1.40 per meal. And the economy is boosted because 97 percent of the benefits are redeemed by the end of the month of issue. In 2017, the government spent $70 billion on SNAP and other food assistance; 93 percent went for benefits. Just 6.5 percent went for state administrative costs; employment, tracking, and nutrition education; and counter-fraud programs.  That is big bang for the buck.

Why then make the cuts proposed in the current Farm Bill? In the first place, President Trump says that we cannot afford what the program currently costs. If we indeed cannot afford it, a claim that hosts of experts deny, could it be because of the unnecessarily high-percentage tax-cut for the wealthiest of our citizens?

A second argument for the SNAP cuts comes from those who are preoccupied with the possibility that somewhere, some able-bodied someone who could work but does not is getting a free $4.20 a day for food. Have you heard any grocery cart luxury goods stories lately? Forcing those people to work supposedly does them the favor of making them healthier in the long run and liberating them from bondage to the dole.

A third argument is that the church can and should pick up the slack if the government assistance is reduced. Has Bread for the World got news for them! The country’s religious organizations would have to add $714,000 to their annual budgets each year for the next decade to make up for the cuts proposed in President Trump’s 2018 budget. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that more than half the proposed cuts ($2.5 trillion over ten years) come from programs that help low-and moderate-income people.

If you aren’t convinced by any of these arguments, maybe it is time to contact your congressional representatives and ask them to vote no on HR 2 in its current form.