The farm bill released on Thursday by House Republicans would reshape the nation's food stamp program by imposing stricter work requirements on more people and guaranteeing job training for every person who wants it.
While the proposed changes to one of the nation's largest anti-poverty programs are still controversial, they are more moderate than what the Trump administration had proposed earlier in the year and have something that could appease conservatives and liberals.
For example, the bill does not reduce overall spending on the program, which is in stark contrast to the White House budget that called for $26.9 billion in cuts over 10 years. The bill in fact drastically boosts funding for work training. The Trump administration also sought to impose work requirements for adults in their early 60s, wanted to send Blue Apron-style boxes of food to SNAP households -- rather than letting people purchase their choice of groceries -- and is reportedly considering state waivers to drug test people on food assistance.
The Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee did not include any of those ideas in their bill, and specifically cite the high costs and relatively low return on investment of drug testing.
"I think in general, the approach they’re taking is right," says Rus Sykes, an expert on food stamps for the American Public Human Services Association. "Some of our states may have problems with the mandatory nature of the program, but every one of them agrees that increasing those [training] resources -- if you’re really serious about having a program about work -- is really essential."
Some left-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups, such as the Center for American Progress and the Food Research and Action Center, still framed the package of proposals as "draconian" and "unnecessary burdens on low-income people."
The food stamps programs is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The bill calls for a new SNAP work requirement that mandates adults between 18 and 59 years old to complete 80 hours a month of work or government-approved job training. It would increase enforcement of existing work requirements, especially for parents of school-age children and adults in their 50s.
The new work requirement would still provide exemptions for adults with disabilities, adults 60 years or older, pregnant mothers and parents with children under 6. States could also still exempt up to 15 percent of their caseload for people who face barriers to employment, such as criminal records. And counties with an unemployment rate above 10 percent could still seek a temporary waiver from work requirements.
If enacted, the House Agriculture Committee estimates that roughly 1 million people would leave the program over the next decade either because they would earn too much to qualify or because they would not meet the revised work requirement. Today about 42 million people participate in the food stamp program.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway has tried to head off criticism that the broader work requirements would kick people off SNAP by increasing funding for training programs and expanding the list of activities that would meet that training requirement.
Over three years, the farm bill would increase federal investment in employment and training from $90 million a year to $1 billion a year. States would also be required to provide training slots for every SNAP participant who needs one. As of 2017, only five states -- Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, South Dakota, and Texas -- have made a similar commitment.
Sykes says the American Public Human Services Association is still mulling over whether three years is enough time to ramp up their training programs. The group's members also aren't sure if even $1 billion a year would be sufficient to provide work training to every SNAP recipient who needs it, but "I think it's close to being sufficient," he says.
The farm bill also makes several changes to eligibility requirements beyond the work provisions -- some of which would make it easier to access benefits.
For example, the bill would raise asset limits for households applying for SNAP and make allowances for up to $12,000 of a vehicle and up to $2,000 in a savings account.
Some households would see a slight boost in benefits because government offices would now subtract a larger percentage of their earned income when calculating people's benefits.
The bill would also require states to provide five months of SNAP benefits for households whose increased earnings disqualify them from the federal-state family cash welfare program TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
However, some states are likely to raise concerns about the elimination of two policies that make it easier to sign people up for SNAP and to boost their benefits.
The bill would nix a little-known rule in SNAP that increases a household's food stamps if they participate in LIHEAP, which helps low-income households pay their energy bills.
The bill would also strike so-called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows states to enroll people in SNAP if they use a government brochure, pamphlet or other document to prove that they qualify for other income-based public assistance programs. Forty-two states currently use broad-based categorical eligibility.
The release of the farm bill comes the same week that President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to promote work in welfare programs and the same week GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, perhaps Washington’s most influential proponent of work requirements, announced his retirement. The Trump administration has sought to add work requirements, either through waivers or legislation, for other programs, such as Medicaid and federal housing assistance.
The farm bill, which needs to be reauthorized or extended in September, faces an uncertain future in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, has decried the changes to SNAP as “extreme, partisan policies.” While Republicans in the House don’t need Democratic votes to pass the bill, Republicans in the Senate do. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has already told reporters that he will not consider major changes to SNAP.