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Will SNAP work requirements doom the farm bill — again?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, could become a pawn in the battle to raise the federal debt limit. 

President Biden says he wants Congress to pass a “clean” debt limit increase — that is, with nothing attached to it — but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) demands spending cuts to put the federal government “on a path to a balanced budget” as his price for House Republican support. McCarthy says Republicans won’t push for cuts in Social Security or Medicare and, in light of what President Biden said in his State of the Union address and on-the-spot congressional reaction, neither party supports such cuts anyway.

No one, however, has promised not to cut SNAP, which will cost an estimated $153.9 billion in the fiscal year 2023 — more than double the annual spending level before COVID-19. SNAP is now an inviting target for Republicans partly because the administration has mismanaged the program.

To contain costs while protecting this vital program that serves 40 million people, the administration and Congress should manage SNAP through a bipartisan process — via the farm bill — rather than through a debt limit standoff between the president and Speaker.

SNAP’s higher annual costs are due in part to an Agriculture Department (USDA) decision to raise monthly benefits by 21 percent in 2021 through its unilateral re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), on which SNAP benefits are partly based. In the 2018 farm bill, policymakers called for a TFP re-evaluation by 2022 but, without consulting Congress, USDA accelerated the process by six months. The administration wanted to implement the benefits increase on the very day that a temporary, COVID-related SNAP benefit, was scheduled to expire.

Republicans in Congress were not consulted. A Government Accountability Office investigation of USDA’s reevaluation found that the department failed to provide documentation or justification for its decisions, did not seek or provide sufficient information for an external peer review and did not meet any project management standards. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) now the Republican Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, described USDA’s role in this case as an “egregious effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.”

In March, another temporary SNAP benefit, which increased benefits by another $95 a month, is scheduled to expire. And when the Public Health Emergency ends in May, two more temporary, COVID-related SNAP provisions will end as well — the suspension of a time limit on SNAP benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who do not meet work or job training requirements, and an exemption that allowed benefits for certain students pursuing higher education at least half-time.

With SNAP in a transition phase as COVID-related benefits expire, the program should not be subject to changes that the president and Speaker negotiate on the fly as part of a debt limit fight. Nor is it wise to subject the program to the annual appropriations process, which could become partisan in a divided Congress. The best place to manage SNAP’s post-COVID transition is through a legislative process that requires bipartisan cooperation, as the farm bill traditionally does.

The bill is uniquely structured to guarantee bipartisanship because it reauthorizes both economic support programs for farmers and nutrition programs for low-income households. Republicans want to support the farm programs, and Democrats want to support low-income households, so both parties have a strong incentive to combine their votes to ensure that Congress passes the law. The 2018 farm bill passed the House and Senate by votes of 369-47 and 87-13, respectively.

Congress is now beginning to draft the 2023 farm bill and keeping partisanship at bay may be harder this time. Fiscally conservative lawmakers dislike not just SNAP’s recent enlargement but also the ease with which states can get federal waivers to sidestep the time limits on benefits to ABAWDs. In 2018, a Republican attempt to impose much stronger work requirements on SNAP recipients met united Democratic opposition in the House, temporarily blocking the entire farm bill. Only after Democrats regained House control in the 2018 midterm elections did Republicans withdraw their demand for stronger work requirements, allowing the farm bill to pass.

Work requirements in SNAP remain a contentious issue inside the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. In January, Senate committee Republican Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to raise the age under which ABAWDs face work requirements by 10 years, to 59. In this year’s farm bill deliberations, policymakers should produce the same compromise as in 2018, allowing states to seek waivers on time-limited ABAWD benefits. As of January, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have been granted statewide ABAWD time limit waivers. Thirteen of these 15 states had voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

This state-by-state approach allows pro-SNAP blue states to avoid what they consider to be an onerous time limit for some ABAWDs, but it does not eliminate all federal work requirements in SNAP. States that receive ABAWD time-limit waivers still must comply with other, more general work requirements that accompany SNAP benefits, including participating in SNAP Employment and Training, taking a suitable job if offered and not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing work hours below 30 a week without good reason. These are reasonable conditions to impose, and exceptions are provided for those with children under six, those who can’t work due to physical or mental limitations and others with special circumstances. A June 2022 Congressional Budget Office report suggested that these more general work requirements had “probably” boosted employment for some adults without dependents, so both Democrats and Republicans should wish to keep them in place.

Policymakers always managed SNAP through the farm bill before COVID-19, and they should return SNAP to that bipartisan venue now that the pandemic’s disruptions are winding down.

Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at Wellesley College, Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force. G. William Hoagland is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center; former Senate staff and FNS-USDA administrator.

Tags 2023 Farm Bill COVID-19 debt ceiling Glenn Thompson Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Medicare Politics of the United States Rick Scott SNAP benefits Social Security spending cuts Work requirements

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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