Despite Farm Bill Fail, Advocates of Food Stamp Work Requirements Succeed Elsewhere

The House voted against the legislation on Friday. But some of the ideas behind it have seen success in the states.
by | May 18, 2018
A supermarket displays stickers indicating they accept food stamps.
(AP/Seth Wenig)

The farm bill, which included substantial changes to food stamps, failed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.

The legislation, crafted by Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, would have imposed stricter work requirements on more food stamp applicants and eliminated options that states have to expand or ease eligibility rules. It also would have invested about 10 times more money per year in workforce training programs.

The bill’s defeat may spell the end of any serious effort to make major changes to federal anti-poverty programs through legislation in 2018. But there’s still one place where advocates of stricter eligibility requirements are likely to have some success: states.

In the past few years, many states -- most recently Tennessee and West Virginia -- have chosen to end federal waivers that allowed able-bodied adults to receive food stamps without working or participating in job training. In Wisconsin, which began letting those waivers expire in 2015, Gov. Scott Walker also signed legislation that requires more hours of work or training and imposes those requirements on more people, including parents of school-age children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, is also reportedly interested in allowing state waivers to drug test food stamp recipients.

But the farm bill was the Trump administration's best chance to enact nationwide welfare reform on a more permanent basis. Congress reauthorizes the farm bill, which sets funding and eligibility rules for the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), every five years. The bill died because Democrats opposed the SNAP changes, and many conservatives felt they didn’t go far enough.

The vote casts doubt on whether House Speaker Paul Ryan, a long-time proponent of stronger work provisions for federal anti-poverty programs, will pass any major welfare legislation this year. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has said the Senate version of the farm bill would be bipartisan and would not seek to restructure SNAP.

The House farm bill, which would have resulted in an estimated 1.2 million people losing benefits over the next 10 years, drew criticism from all corners of the political spectrum.

The American Public Human Services Association, a bipartisan group representing state and local agencies, took issue with provisions that would have rolled back state flexibility in deciding whether to make work programs voluntary or mandatory, whether to waive federal work requirements when a local area lacks jobs, and whether to loosen eligibility criteria to boost benefits or add near-poor residents.

Some of the group’s strongest language came in the context of the work requirements: “What states do not want or need to be effective are highly prescriptive instructions and rigid, administratively cumbersome federal reporting requirements that often measure the wrong performance indicators and divert staff time from focusing on getting people employed.”

At the same time, the Secretaries’ Innovation Group (SIG), a conservative coalition of state agency heads serving Republican governors, complained that the House farm bill would still provide too many ways for states to exempt people from working, looking for work or participating in training.

Under the failed bill, states would have continued to have the ability to seek state or local area work requirement waivers from the federal government when unemployment was high. States would also have had the option of exempting up to 15 percent of their SNAP caseload from work requirements for other reasons, such as undiagnosed disabilities.