The House should again reject the pending House farm bill because, in its nutrition provisions, the bill would cut or eliminate food for millions of Americans and cause disproportionate harm to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Instead, the House should craft a bill that protects the most vulnerable among us, like the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
As Christians, we experience the love of God for all people, and are moved to help and defend people living in hunger and poverty. We see them every day in the families that live among us in communities all over America. That’s why we are so troubled by the House bill, which House members rejected when it first came before the chamber in May.
Specifically, the bill would cut billions of dollars in food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the program we used to call food stamps), which would cause more than 2 million people in more than 1 million households to lose their benefits or see them reduced. Much of this money would pay for an expanded bureaucracy to enforce work requirements.
These work requirements would apply to every SNAP participant between the ages of 18 and 59, who isn’t raising a child under age 6 and doesn’t meet a narrow definition of disability or qualify for a limited set of exemptions.
In large part, the work requirements are a solution in search of a problem. In most SNAP households, someone is working — and, in households in which no one is working at any one time, the unemployment is overwhelmingly temporary. In more than half of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, someone works. For SNAP households with children, more than 60 percent work; and in almost 90 percent of such households, someone worked in either the year before or year after receiving SNAP.
Christian moral teaching is clear about the importance of work. But evaluations of job requirements on public assistance programs have found them to be ineffective in moving more people into jobs. A much-cited exception was welfare reform two decades ago. At that time, however, the economy was booming and some states expanded their child care assistance. Longer-term, the work requirements pushed people off assistance but usually not into jobs, fueling a surge in “deep poverty” — people living on less than $2 a day of cash income.
People of color in the United States are two times more likely to live with hunger than whites. This means African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans would be disproportionately affected by the new requirements. Today, one in four African Americans, one in five Latinos, and one in four Native Americans struggle with hunger.
As for the House farm bill, its limited funding for what it designates as “job training” cannot possibly provide meaningful training for the millions who would be funneled into the program. We know from experience that some states would require people to show up for 20 hours a week of sitting around, designed mainly to give people incentives to drop off SNAP. Before adding work requirements in SNAP, lawmakers should wait to draw lessons from the SNAP Employment & Training pilot projects they launched a few years ago.
Instead of imposing a large SNAP bureaucracy, lawmakers should focus on measures that would more likely improve job opportunities. Giving the “Dreamers” a path to citizenship would enable almost 2 million young people to move into better jobs. Criminal justice reform would reduce employment barriers for many people. Congress should combine the House bill on prison reform with the Senate bill on sentencing reform and pass that combined bill.
As they consider boosting infrastructure funding, lawmakers should make public transportation from low-income urban neighborhoods a high priority. Expanding broad-band would help depressed rural communities connect to economic activity. Bread for the World’s 2018 Hunger Report provides lawmakers with a menu of policy recommendations.
The scriptures speak to the responsibility of kings and other public leaders to protect and help poor and vulnerable people. Instead of cutting food assistance and building a new job-requirement bureaucracy, policymakers should pursue policies that would really improve job opportunities.
Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World,
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner is co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network.