I could hardly contain myself last Thursday when tweets started announcing the defeat of the proposed House Farm Bill.
Seems that too many Republicans choked on the price tag. Even the 24 Democrats who voted in favor — SNAP (food stamp) provisions notwithstanding — couldn’t make up for those defectors.
Big blame game, of course. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) blames the Democrats for “putting partisanship over progress,” though the bill could have passed with no Democratic votes at all if his fractious colleagues had followed their leaders.
Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, blame the Republicans for making the bill the Committee passed so much worse that Democrats who’d planned to vote for it wouldn’t.
The received wisdom seems to be that, for them, the final straw was an amendment sponsored by Congressman Steve Southerland (R-FL), which the House passed shortly before the final vote.
It’s been widely reported as establishing new, optional work requirements for SNAP recipients. This makes the amendment sound far more reasonable than it was.
First off, we need to understand that SNAP already has work requirements.
As I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can get benefits for only three weeks in any three-year period unless they’re working at least 20 hours a week or putting as much time into a job training or subsidized work program.
The law, however, makes reasonable exceptions. States may gain waivers from these requirements for ABAWDs who live in areas where the unemployment rate is very high or the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines there are “insufficient jobs” available.
And, with some exceptions, all working-age food stamp recipients who aren’t already employed must apply for work at the local employment office, participate in a job training program if they’re told to and accept any suitable job offer.
At the same time, it would have allowed states to establish work requirements for most adult SNAP applicants and recipients. Only a few, very limited exemptions mandated.
States could thus have imposed their work requirements on parents with very young children, others without child care and even some people too disabled to work, including childless adults so severely disabled as to qualify for federal disability benefits.
They would have had to impose the already-existing work requirements on all ABAWDs because the amendment voided waivers to protect those in labor markets where jobs are extremely scarce.
But the amendment provided no funds for job training programs. And states wouldn’t have had to come up with their own money to provide training and other employment assistance to everyone their work requirements covered.
All they’d have had to do was condition SNAP benefits on work or participation in a work preparation program for at least 20 hours a week — and provide some sort of work activity or the equivalent for some recipients and/or applicants.
Failure to comply with the work requirements, even if no training slots were available, could have caused an entire family to lose its benefits.
Well, you might wonder, why would any state do such a thing. States aren’t under pressure to cut their caseloads, as they are with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Because the amendment allowed them to keep half the money they saved the federal government by reducing SNAP spending — and to use it however they chose, e.g., to offset the costs of tax cuts.
In short, the amendment wasn’t, as Cantor claimed, giving states the “flexibility [to] encourage self-sufficiency by increasing workforce participation.”
It was giving them an incentive to deny SNAP benefits to as many hard-up people as possible, without regard for the greater hardships they’d suffer.
“One of the most extreme SNAP amendments to be offered in the program’s history,” blogged Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Bob Greenstein, who’s been actively involved with food stamp/SNAP policies for 40 years now.
Greenstein and his team deserve a lot of credit for the analyses and shoe-leather work that helped persuade most Democrats — maybe even a few Republicans — to vote against a bad Farm Bill made even worse.
So do many other advocacy organizations and, I’m told, grassroots constituents, who made literally thousands of calls to their Representatives.
No one knows what will happen next. But something will have to happen because the extension that’s kept the current Farm Bill operative will expire at the end of September.
So a hard-fought battle has been won, but not the war.
NOTE: I have updated this post to eliminate an erroneous statement about funding for SNAP Education and Training Services. The proposed Farm Bill actually extended an $11 billion cut that was part of the fiscal cliff deal.