A coincidence of timing last week highlighted the contrast between the needs of hungry families in America and the political will in Washington to help them. On Tuesday, the U.S. Census reported that in 2012, 15 percent of people in America, and 21.9 percent of children, had household income that put them below the official poverty line. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a bill, H.R. 3102, that would deny nutritional assistance to millions of individuals and cut benefits for others.
Food Stamps, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are a critical part of the safety net that reduces the negative effects of poverty. The Census estimates that if SNAP benefits were counted as income, 4 million fewer people, including 1.7 million children, would have been counted as poor. Moreover, receipt of SNAP benefits has been shown both to reduce food insecurity in the short run and improve children’s long-term health, educational and economic outcomes.
H.R. 3102 is projected to cut spending on SNAP and related programs by $39 billion over 10 years, and deny benefits to 3.8 million individuals in 2014. Moreover, these cuts would come on top of a benefit cut that all SNAP recipients are already scheduled to receive in November due to the expiration of a provision from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the “stimulus bill”).
Supporters of H.R. 3102 claim that these cuts are needed because the number of families receiving SNAP benefits is at historic highs. However, this is a sign of the success of SNAP as a safety net for children, seniors, and low-wage and unemployed workers. Even though the unemployment rate has come down somewhat from the heights of the recession, last week’s poverty data confirms that too many low- and middle-income families have not yet benefited from the recovery. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the economy will continue to improve gradually over the next decade and that in the absence of any policy changes, SNAP caseloads will fall from 48 million in an average month in 2014 to 34 million in 2023.
So, what would H.R. 3102 do if enacted?
The biggest cut would affect unemployed, working-age adults without children at home. Under current law, such individuals are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period unless they are participating in job training or other work activities. However, states may waive this limit in periods and areas of high unemployment, and most do so. The House bill would remove this flexibility. It would not require states to provide recipients with the opportunity to participate in a work activity and would not give states any additional funding to support such activities. Many of those affected would be young adults who have struggled to get a toehold in the workforce since the Great Recession. With the employment rate for 20-24 year olds still 6.9 percentage points below pre-recession levels, these cuts would be particularly harmful in communities with large minority populations, since employment rates continue to be far lower for young people of color.
It would restrict use of a provision called “categorical eligibility” that streamlines program administration and expands access. Many states have used this provision to remove antiquated asset limits that have the unintended consequence of preventing SNAP recipients from saving for a security deposit or a job training program, or from buying a reliable car. States have also used this provision to remove the work disincentive that can occur when a small increase in wages or hours results in a total loss of benefits.
It would reward states for reducing the number of people receiving SNAP benefits by allowing states to keep half of the savings if they impose work requirements on all participants, including parents of young children. However, states could receive these bonuses even if they simply place more hurdles in front of individuals seeking assistance, without actually helping anyone obtain a well-paying job. No additional upfront funding would be provided for workforce activities, even though existing programs for both adults and youth are already unable to serve all those who seek help. Moreover, some workforce programs have had to close enrollment mid-year due to the sequester. States that have already invested in job training programs for SNAP recipients, such as New York and Washington, would lose these funds unless they agreed to impose these requirements on all recipients.
The House and Senate now need to agree on a single version of the Farm bill – including both nutrition and agriculture provisions. The conferees should reject the punitive and short-sighted provisions in the House bill. Meanwhile, Congress should work on strategies to build the economy and ensure that all workers share in the rewards of economic growth. That’s the right way to bring SNAP receipt down – without leaving workers and children hungry.
Ms. Lower-Basch is the Policy Coordinator at CLASP and a senior policy analyst for Income and Work Supports. Her expertise is federal and state welfare (TANF) policy, other supports for low-income working families (such as refundable tax credits), systems integration, and job quality. From 1996 to 2006, Ms. Lower-Basch worked for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this position, she was a lead welfare policy analyst, supporting legislative and regulatory processes and managing research projects. Ms. Lower-Basch received a Master of Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.