Congress Enacts Farm Bill After Years of Debate and Negotiations

By Helly Lee

On January 29, the House passed H.R. 2642, a negotiated agreement between House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders on the 5-year Farm Bill. On February 4th, the Senate followed suit and also passed the conference report, which the President will soon sign into law.

While disagreements over agricultural policy held up the final bill in the last weeks, the nutrition title of the bill, which includes authorization for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) was among the most contentious. The nutrition title in H.R. 2642 does not include the provisions from the House-passed bill that would have cut benefits from an estimated 4 million individuals, including eliminating SNAP eligibility based on Categorical Eligibility and limiting the ability of states that have areas of high unemployment to waive the time limit for SNAP on non-disabled adults without  minor children during bad economic times when individuals are unable to access jobs.

However, cuts to SNAP amount to nearly half of the over $16 billion in spending reductions in the bill. It includes an $8.6 billion cut to SNAP over 10 years by limiting a process, often called “heat and eat” that a number of states have used to increase SNAP benefits for some households. As a result, an estimated 850,000 households will see a decrease of approximately $90 a month in their SNAP benefits. This provision goes into effect 30 days after enactment of the law; however, states have the option of further delaying implementation by up to five months for current participants who are receiving increased benefits as a result of heat and eat. 

The nutrition title also includes $200 million for the creation and evaluation of pilot projects in up to ten states that will test innovative SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) strategies to help get participants into the workforce, raise earnings and ultimately, reduce SNAP participation. States may choose to include work activities that are countable toward the TANF work requirements, in addition to those already allowed under SNAP E&T. However, unlike the earlier proposal in the House Farm Bill, states will not be incentivized to impose barriers on SNAP receipt. The Secretary of Agriculture will select a number of projects from states that apply to take part in the pilot project. The projects are to be from diverse geographic areas, test a variety of education and training services and are subject to a 3-year time limit. The law also calls for the development of performance measures for SNAP E&T programs and clarifies the conditions under which low-income college students may receive SNAP benefits. CLASP will be analyzing these provisions more closely in the upcoming weeks and sharing additional information on the opportunities and challenges that they pose.

SNAP is an anti-poverty program that has been shown to lift families out of poverty. It is an automatic stabilizer – expanding to meet the needs of families during economic downturns and retracting as the economy recovers – and is a particularly critical support for families when the economy is slowly recovering and unemployment is still high. Certainly, helping to put more of those who can work into the workforce is the ideal solution, and that is why the work pilots in this bill will be critical. However, 70 percent of SNAP participants are children, elderly or disabled. For these and other vulnerable populations, it is essential that the SNAP program be protected from further cuts.