House and Senate farm bills set contrasting visions for SNAP program

By Olivia Golden and Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Opinion Contributors

We all need food to live, stay healthy, and work. For about 40 million Americans—workers, parents, children, seniors, and people who are unemployed, have a disability, or care for an ill relative—the monthly help they receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is often what keeps food on the table. That’s what’ll be at stake when Congress tries to agree on the farm bill, which includes the SNAP program.

The House farm bill—the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—shreds this help, increasing hunger and poverty. It would completely eliminate or reduce SNAP benefits for more than 2 million people and take school lunches away from 265,000 children. It cuts SNAP benefits by adding bureaucracy and paperwork so people fall through the cracks, taking away food assistance from parents and older workers unable to comply with SNAP’s already rigid work requirements, and removing state flexibility to gradually phase down workers’ benefits as their earnings increase. Low-wage workers with intermittent hours and no paid leave who would need to stand in line at the office or submit continuous paperwork will be especially burdened because the bill requires monthly documentation to prove they are working a minimum number of hours.

Despite supporters’ claims that the House bill is about work, it really just creates new hoops and barriers that make it tougher for people to put food on the table. It provides employment and training programs with less than $30 per month to cover each person required to participate in work or training. And states will have to spend time and money creating massive tracking systems to document participation instead of helping people find jobs and feed their families. Taking away food assistance from those who don’t work a specified number of hours simply ignores the reality of low-wage work, which is often temporary, part-time, and forces workers to accept unpredictable schedules.

By contrast, the Senate bill maintains the highly successful core principles of SNAP and its central role in reducing hunger and poverty, builds on years of progress to advance long-term health, education, and employment opportunities for millions of people who depend on SNAP, and introduces new opportunities for training and education based on emerging research and promising approaches. Each year, SNAP reduces hunger and lifts millions of people—3.6 million in 2016—out of poverty. SNAP also supports work by stabilizing the lives of many low-wage workers and their families. Most SNAP recipients who can work already do, but many still need help to buy nutritious foods for themselves and their families because their jobs pay low wages and provide unpredictable hours. At the same time, as the economy gets better, more SNAP recipients get better jobs that enable them to leave SNAP; as a result, enrollment has declined in recent years. That’s exactly how the program is supposed to work.

But more investment is needed to make economic stability a reality for more people. The Senate bill provides an important installment in that investment. It would encourage states to build on lessons learned from the 2014 farm bill’s creation of SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) pilot projects to test ways to help recipients find work leading to economic security. The Senate bill targets people with barriers to work by providing $185 million for new pilot using the most effective E&T approaches. The Senate bill also requires E&T programs to coordinate with employers and local workforce boards to align their training with local labor market needs.

Faced with a choice between a House bill that increases hunger and throws out the lessons of experience and a Senate bill that builds on time-tested lessons to reduce poverty and hunger and support work, the conference committee’s choice should be clear. Now that both chambers have passed very different bills, the House and Senate need to agree on common language. Often, the conference process involves taking some elements from each bill. In resolving the farm bill’s nutrition title, however, Congress should follow the Senate bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by an 86-11 vote, and not the House bill, which squeaked by with just a 2-vote margin. As Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member of the of the House Agriculture Committee, said the other day, “If they insist on the food stamp stuff there won’t be a farm bill—it’s that simple.” Now is the time for Congress to take a strong position in support of SNAP, our most important and effective nutrition program.

Olivia Golden is executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Elizabeth Lower-Basch is CLASP’s director of income and work supports.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on July 16, 2018.

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