House farm bill: The latest assault on disability rights

House farm bill: The latest assault on disability rights
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Over the last year, people with disabilities have fought against attacks on their health care, civil rights, and supports that make inclusion in society possible. From Medicaid, to the Americans with Disabilities Act, to affordable housing, effective federal programs and laws have been on the chopping block, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

This summer, the House of Representatives passed a divisive farm bill that would cut or end basic food assistance through SNAP to many people with disabilities and their families. In contrast, the Senate adhered to the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship, passing their own farm bill that does not include the House’s harsh cuts to SNAP. Now, as the House and Senate prepare to iron out a final version of the bill, we urge those involved to adopt the Senate’s approach to SNAP.

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SNAP represents America’s frontline of defense against hunger and malnutrition. Providing a modest monthly benefit that participants can use only to buy food, SNAP improves participants’ nutritional intake, lessens their food insecurity, and reduces their poverty. Decades of research support these claims. Children who participate in SNAP also enjoy substantial improvements in their long-term health and economic outcomes. 

People with disabilities often face numerous expenses that can make it harder for them to put food on the table. They are twice as likely to live in poverty, and families that include people with disabilities are two to three times likelier to be food insecure. Not surprisingly, then, roughly one in four SNAP participants (totaling over 11 million people) is a child, adult, or senior with a disability. SNAP benefits average just $6 per day for non-elderly adults with disabilities, but even that modest amount helps participants stave off terrible choices, such as whether to eat or fill a prescription.

The House bill, passed in June along party lines, would make it harder for millions of people to eat. Significantly greater paperwork burdens would create needless hurdles for SNAP beneficiaries and undercut state efforts to streamline administration. Moreover, for most adults — including parents with children above age 6 — the bill would take away SNAP from those who don’t prove every month that they worked or participated in a work program for at least 20 hours a week or qualified for an exemption.

The first time someone falls short of working enough hours or fails to produce all the necessary paperwork to prove an exemption could mean losing food assistance for a whole year. For instance, a cashier scheduled to work for 19 hours one week instead of her usual 30, could be at risk of losing the benefits that help feed her and her kids for a year. The second time someone falls short would mean losing SNAP for three years. A person could regain SNAP only by proving that he or she found a job or training program with the required hours or qualified for an exemption.

Many people with disabilities would lose SNAP under this punishing policy. Adults receiving disability benefits would likely be technically exempt. But many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses don’t meet the stringent standards for programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance. Instead, they would have to know to ask for an exemption and then prove that they qualify for one. Similarly, the bill’s proposed exemption for caregivers is incredibly narrow. Many families raising children with disabilities or supporting adults or seniors with disabilities would be left out.

In reality, most SNAP participants work, including many with disabilities and chronic illnesses. But many work in jobs with low pay and unpredictable hours — jobs in which, as noted, just one week with low hours could mean that you and your kids eat less for a year. Our recent research found that people with disabilities and their families are particularly likely to work in these kinds of jobs.

People with disabilities already face major barriers to work — discrimination, lack of accessible transportation, inadequate job training, and more. Congress should not add a greater risk of hunger to that list. Indeed, the evidence is clear that punitive policies such as those in the House bill only make it harder for SNAP participants to get and keep a job. 

The House’s partisan approach and deep cuts to SNAP not only conflict with decades of bipartisan Congressional support for the program, but also are widely opposed. Using the Senate bill as a springboard, Congress should work in a bipartisan manner to produce a final bill that strengthens SNAP, rather than decimates it.

Indivar Dutta-Gupta is co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

T.J. Sutcliffe is senior director of Income and Housing Policy at The Arc.