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The Bipartisan Food Stamp Reforms Congress Won't Talk About

The farm bill expected to be unveiled this week offers Republicans a rare opportunity to reshape one of the largest federal anti-poverty programs.

The House Agriculture Committee's room during debate on the farm bill in 2013.
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
This week, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee is preparing to unveil a draft of the farm bill, which Congress reauthorizes every five years.

It's expected to include proposed reforms for food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the past year, bipartisan groups, including former agriculture secretaries and state officials who administer SNAP under Republican and Democratic administrations, have put forward ideas to ensure the program is improving people’s health at the same time that it's alleviating hunger.

But those ideas won't be the ones that show up in the bill.

The list of farm bill changes shared with reporters in recent weeks does not include efforts to improve nutrition and health. Instead, "I think the major focus of the farm bill is going to be on program integrity and work," says Russell Sykes, a SNAP expert for the American Public Human Services Association who has been meeting with staff on the House Agriculture Committee and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

That would fall in line with the Republican Congress and Trump administration's recent efforts to expand work requirements. Earlier this year, the White House started approving states' requests for Medicaid work requirements, and President Trump's budget proposed extending them to federal housing assistance. The Obama administration had objected to the policy.

Under current law, the federal government requires childless adults to spend 20 hours a week working (paid or unpaid) or participating in a state-approved work or training program. If people fail to meet that requirement, they can only get food stamps for a total of three months in a three-year period.

Most people on SNAP either already meet the work requirement or are exempt from it because they have a disability, are older than 49 or have primary custody of school-aged children.

According to reports from Politico, Republicans in charge of the House Agriculture Committee want to impose work requirements on more people, including parents of school-aged children and adults between 50 and 65 years old.

The draft of the farm bill also reportedly calls for severing ties between SNAP and another program called LIHEAP, which helps low-income households pay their energy bill. Most states use a little-known rule in SNAP that increases a household's food stamps if they participate in LIHEAP.

Finally, the committee bill would eliminate a provision -- known as "broad-based categorical eligibility" -- that allows states to simplify the enrollment process for food stamps when someone is already on another welfare program. The enrollment shortcut is believed to be one of the reasons that SNAP caseloads are still about 60 percent higher than they were at the start of the Great Recession. A slow economic recovery, with years of stagnant wage growth, is thought to be another reason.

The Trump White House and House Republican leadership have sought to cut SNAP spending and participation. Both spending, which totaled $68 billion last year, and participation, which was 42 million, have declined slightly each year since 2013. But they say enrollment should be even lower now that the national unemployment rate is at its lowest point in a decade (about 4.1 percent).

Critics of work requirements say they don't work as advertised and argue that food, health insurance and housing are all keys to helping people get and stay employed. The policy runs the risk of denying benefits to people who are willing to work or get training, but aren't able to access enough hours. One survey in Ohio found that some "able-bodied" SNAP recipients actually had unidentified disabilities, such as back injuries, that prevented them from working. Criminal records, language barriers, low levels of education and inadequate access to reliable transportation also hindered people's ability to get a job or attend approved training activities.

The deadline for the next reauthorization of the farm bill is in September. This year offers a rare opportunity for Republicans to reshape one of the largest federal anti-poverty programs. Republicans have never controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House while negotiating the farm bill, which has historically enjoyed bipartisan support. But this year, House Democrats say they’re being left out of the process and won't support the proposed changes to SNAP.

Republicans could pass their House bill along partisan lines, but they will need Democratic support in the Senate. U.S. GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has already told reporters that he will not consider major changes to SNAP.     

If Congress wants to modify SNAP in ways that both parties can support, there’s no shortage of ideas.

Last month, the Bipartisan Policy Center released recommendations from its SNAP Task Force, whose members include Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, former agriculture secretaries under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. The task force also included two state officials overseeing health and human services under Republican and Democratic governors.

About a year ago, the American Public Human Services Association released a similar report on modernizing SNAP, based on recommendations from SNAP directors under both Democratic and Republican governors.

In many respects, those two reports echo ideas outlined four years ago by the National Commission on Hunger, an independent group of experts appointed by Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress.

All three reports call for restricting the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps, increasing incentives for buying nutritious groceries and better coordinating between SNAP and federal health programs that serve the same low-income households. 

None of the reports propose tightening food stamps' eligibility rules. 

“All of us actually support SNAP as a program," says Glickman, referring to the Bipartisan Policy Center's SNAP Task Force. "Most of us don’t believe in the other reforms like work requirements.”

Both the National Commission on Hunger and the Bipartisan Policy Center recommend removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of items people can buy with SNAP benefits. The American Public Human Services Association doesn’t go quite as far but still recommends “pilots for interested states” to evaluate whether those restrictions reduce the purchase of sugary drinks and improve SNAP recipients’ health -- or whether it only pushes people to buy those drinks with other income.

The fastest growing part of the federal budget is health care, so it makes sense, Glickman says, for Congress to encourage changes in Americans' diets that could reduce the incidence of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. 

Food retailers say restrictions on sugary drinks would place a burden on their stores, but Glickman points out that SNAP already prohibits the purchase of tobacco, alcohol and hot prepared foods. And a similar federal nutrition program for pregnant women and young mothers, called WIC, already prescribes specific items people can and cannot buy with their benefits.

To outright ban the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits, Congress would need to change the statute that authorizes SNAP. But the Agriculture Secretary could grant waivers for state or local governments to try the idea on a more limited basis.

So far, that hasn't happened. 

Last year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage requested a waiver to ban both sugary drinks and candy. The Obama administration had rejected the same request in 2016, but LePage hoped a Republican White House would be friendlier to the proposal.

In January, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rejected Maine's application, which suggests the idea still doesn't have enough traction in Washington. However, LePage has promised to revise and resubmit the request, and other states, such as Illinois, New York and Minnesota, have also asked for a waiver to ban candy or sugary drinks.

While the draft legislation isn't expected to include any of these ideas, four House Republicans and Democrats, led by Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, did form the Food is Medicine Working Group in January. At the group’s launch party, McGovern mentioned incentives for healthy eating as the kind of idea that members of both parties could support. 

This appears in the Human Services newsletter. Subscribe for free.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this stated that the Obama administration rejected Maine Gov. Paul LePage's request in 2015; it was 2016.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Food is Medicine Working Group does not support banning sugary drinks.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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