Proposed Farm Bill Creates Steep Federal Barriers to Food Assistance

Congress is poised to put the nutritional health and economic vitality of hundreds of thousands of Georgians at risk as it prepares to reauthorize the federal Farm Bill and its wide range of agricultural and rural development programs. Top threats to Georgians include the Farm Bill’s provisions to require work in exchange for food assistance while cutting over $17 billion in benefits over 10 years.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) portion of the Farm Bill keeps food on the table for nearly 1.7 million Georgians. This anti-hunger program is a proven way to boost the health of children and adults while reducing poverty.

The version of the Farm Bill approved by the House Agricultural Committee last month restricts access to food assistance through expanded work requirements for non-disabled adults. Research shows work requirements do not help people reach financial security. Instead, it leads to an abrupt loss of benefits and increased financial instability. These harmful changes come on the heels of major federal tax changes that threaten funding for a range of crucial investments such as food assistance, health care and support for seniors.

Work requirements curtail access

Federal law already requires childless adults from ages 18 to 49 to find work within three months of receiving food assistance. The Farm Bill proposes to raise the work requirement age to 59 for people raising children six or older. The new rules will also punish participants who fail to meet the requirement. For example, adults who don’t meet the requirement for one month lose their SNAP benefits for a year, and then 36 months for any subsequent violations. This provision is particularly harmful for people who fall on hard times and need time to get back on their feet. The age increase also threatens to increase hunger for older adults who often need more time to find work than younger adults. Older workers take 36 weeks to find work compared to 26 weeks for young workers, according to a Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis survey. Age discrimination for older adults seeking work also remains a persistent barrier.

Cost shift to states

The bill also proposes that states offer slots in job training and placement services for people who fall under the work requirement. For 3 million work slots needed in the country, the proposed $7.75 billion funding over 10 years amounts to just $30 per participant a month. That’s not nearly sufficient to train people for meaningful work that pays enough to support a family. Work programs now cost from $7,500 to $14,000 per participant. Work requirements administered under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program cost about $5,000 per year. Based on that example, states collectively might spend almost $15 billion a year to provide employment services. And many of these programs will not lead to the sustainable employment needed to improve economic mobility. In 2012, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts estimated the cost to pilot and administer new SNAP work programs at $23 million annually in just five out Georgia’s 159 counties.

New rules to ensnare families in red tape

The bill proposes to require people to prove each month they worked or trained 20 hours per week to maintain food assistance. Workers who get hours cut or who miss work due to caregiving responsibilities could lose SNAP benefits. Many men and women who receive SNAP work at jobs with low pay, high turnover, and poor benefits. That includes home health workers, nursing home staff, custodial staff and cashiers. About half of working SNAP recipients went at least one month in which they participated in the program but didn’t work at least 80 hours.

Clerical mistakes by workers or caseworkers can also result in lost benefits. This undoes the reporting process simplifications made on a bipartisan basis over the last 15 years to reduce paperwork burdens and make the program more accessible to low-income families.

Strengthen SNAP rather than undermine it

Meaningful investments in workforce training programs and jobs that pay strong wages are better ways to move people out of poverty than the Farm Bill’s misguided tactics. Working families are shielded from hunger through food assistance when jobs are scarce or don’t pay well. Seventy-five percent of adult SNAP recipients worked during the month they received the benefit or at some point in that year, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. About two-thirds of childless adult SNAP recipients worked most of the months they received food assistance.

Georgians who take on some of the most essential roles in our communities use food assistance to feed themselves and their families. In 2017, roughly 5,800 elementary and middle school teachers, 5,500 teacher assistants and even 1,600 police officers got SNAP benefits. The top five occupations for Georgians who rely on food assistance pay well below the state’s $22 average hourly wage. The largest share of workers on food stamps only earn about $9 per hour.

Most SNAP recipients who can work, do work. The program is highly effective and targeted to people who need help to meet their basic food needs. The average benefit is only $1.43 per person per meal, yet it is crucial for lifting Georgians out of poverty. The pending House Agriculture Committee’s version of the Farm Bill includes benefit cuts and harsh new work requirements that threaten many poor working families, children, and individuals who struggle to find stable employment. Georgians and the rest of the American people will be better served if Congress advances proposals to improve economic opportunity that include strategic investments in evidence-based work programs that maximize the promise of SNAP, rather than take it away.

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