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The House Republican farm bill has nothing to do with helping anyone work


Just four months after giving $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, House Republicans recently unveiled a farm bill that would dismantle the nation’s main source of nutrition assistance for struggling workers and families—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps.

In an Orwellian op-ed in USA Today, the bill’s architect, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), held up the SNAP provisions of the bill as “support[ing] nutrition for families in need while also creating opportunities that move people forward and improve their futures.”

{mosads}Unfortunately, the bill fails wildly on both fronts.

SNAP provides some 40 million individuals—nearly 70 percent of whom are in families with children—an average of just $1.40 per person per meal. By the third week of every month, most families run out of SNAP because the meager benefits it provides fall far short of what it takes to feed a family. Yet SNAP’s modest benefits protect millions of individuals and families from poverty and hunger each year.

SNAP already has strict time limits for unemployed workers, restricting food assistance to just three months in any three-year period in most parts of the country for most working-age individuals not currently working at least 20 hours per week.

But the House Republican proposal would radically transform the SNAP program by replacing these already stringent time limits with an even harsher new system of penalties, lockouts, and extensive new paperwork requirements that are nakedly designed to make nutrition assistance significantly harder for struggling families to access in their time of need. In fact, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated about 2 million fewer individuals will be helped by SNAP in the coming decade under the bill as a result.

For the first time, older workers aged 50 to 59 would be ineligible to receive food assistance if they are not working 20 hours per week or participating in an approved training program. This is a recipe for massively increasing hunger and malnutrition among seniors, who face some of the greatest barriers to work, including higher likelihood of health problems as well as employment discrimination.

The bill would also apply its harsh new penalties to parents with children over age 6—as though caregiving obligations disappear once a child reaches school age. Parents and kids both would go hungry under this proposal, since whole families lose SNAP when a parent gets sanctioned.

Meanwhile, the very fact of having to document—and re-document, and re-document—one’s work hours will cause countless individuals who are working to lose needed food assistance, as they get lost in red tape. Workers with unpredictable and fluctuating schedules—increasingly the norm in low-wage work—will be at particular risk.

Chairman Conaway has claimed no one will lose SNAP if they are willing to work or participate in job training, citing the bill’s requirement that states guarantee training slots to anyone who wants one. But a closer look at the legislation reveals its so-called job training “guarantee” is actually a woefully underfunded mandate for states.

The bill calls for providing states $1 billion a year to support this new job training mandate. While this might sound like a significant investment, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out, this breaks down to just over $300 per person per year. Yet successful employment programs cost anywhere between $7,500 and $14,000 per slot.

As such, whatever paltry employment services workers would end up receiving—assuming states could even scale up their workforce development systems to serve the huge new influx of workers in need of services—would be worthless make-work activities that do little if anything to help anyone get ahead.    

Make no mistake, this bill has nothing to do with helping anyone work: It is a thinly disguised ploy to take food away from struggling workers and families, packaged in Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) newly minted rebranding of “workforce development.”

Pushing for “work requirements” has long been at the core of the GOP strategy to reinforce myths about poverty in America: that “the poor” are some stagnant group of people who “just don’t want to work,” that anyone who wants a well-paying job can snap her fingers to make one appear, and that having a job is all it takes to not be poor.

In reality, of course, millions of Americans are working two, even three jobs to make ends meet and provide for their families. Half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have even $400 in the bank, and nearly all of us—70 percent—will turn to some form of means-tested assistance, like SNAP, at some point in our lives, when we lose a job, when wages aren’t enough, or when a loved one gets sick.

Being able to put food on the table is a prerequisite to work—which is why study after study finds that when people have enough to eat, they’re better able to work and have higher earnings. On the flip side, decades of research show that work requirements do not help anyone work.

If House Republicans were serious about helping struggling workers “climb the economic ladder,” as Chairman Conaway has put it, they’d address the problems actually facing struggling workers and families today—starting with poverty-level minimum wage, which has stayed stuck at $7.25 for nearly a decade.

As a result, many low-wage workers need to turn to programs like SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough. In fact, raising the minimum wage just to $12 would save $53 billion in SNAP alone over a decade, as more low-wage workers would suddenly earn enough to feed their families without nutrition assistance.

Republicans know that advancing divide-and-conquer myths about assistance programs and the people they help is their best shot at slashing programs that Americans overwhelmingly—and across party lines—don’t want to see cut. They also hope it will distract us from their refusal to enact the policies Americans actually support—like raising the minimum wage, ensuring affordable high-quality child care and paid leave, and a job guarantee to ensure everyone who is able and wants to work can find a job with decent wages.

Rather than heed the wishes of the American people, the GOP’s plan—yet again—is to tap into ugly myths about aid programs in order to pit struggling workers against one other. That way, they can hide their continued betrayal of the constituents whose interests they pretend to represent.

Rebecca Vallas is the vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the host of Off-Kilter, a weekly radio show and podcast about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with.

Tags Food Stamps Mike Conaway Paul Ryan

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