Can’t Work and Don’t Work Are Sooo Different

October 3, 2013

Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND) sparked some hostile interest when he responded to a message on his Facebook page that implicitly rebuked him for voting in favor of the Republicans’ new SNAP (food stamp) bill.

The message quoted at length a passage in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus says that, at the Last Judgment, those “on the right” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven because “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink … Whatever you did for one of the least of these…, you did it for me.”*

Cramer retorts with an excerpt from Thessalonians: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

This has become somewhat of a trope in the right-wing side of the debate — prompted, at least in part, by strong, broad-based advocacy for SNAP and other safety net programs on the part of faith-based organizations.

Congressman Stephen Fincher (R-TN), for example, cited it during the debate over the Farm Bill that failed to pass — largely, though not entirely because the SNAP cuts weren’t big enough to satisfy enough of the Tea Party types.

I first came upon the passage as an injunction against SNAP in some comments on one of my posts — the most extreme of a fair number that trashed on the program or benficiaries thereof.

The commenter, self-identified as Proud NeoCon, A True American, asserted, among other things, that those who are purportedly too disabled to work “are just hiding behind … fake made-up illnesses” and thus “are too disabled to live.”

Don’t ask me to explain the logic here — or how one can read a passage that, as I understand it, refers to some who Paul hears are “disorderly,” idle “busybodies” as a justification for letting anyone who can’t earn enough to afford food starve.

I mention this ripple in the backwaters of my blog because the Proud NeoCon comments recently evoked a heart-wrenching response from Billy.

It speaks to the value of SNAP and also, I think, weaknesses in other parts of our safety net — one of which may soon be remedied by the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s a summary, with some inter-weaved quotations and a parting shot from Billy himself.

Billy is a former marine, married to a woman with a mild mental disability. He used to “work [his] butt off and made GOOD money.”

Then came the recession. He lost his job and, with it, his health insurance. His health “deteriorated,” and his wife was “labeled unable to work.” So the only income they had came from his disability insurance — the SSDI program that’s got the Washington Post on another of its entitlement rampages.

They couldn’t see a way to meet their children’s needs, pay the rent and electricity bills and still afford more than $2,000 a month for the medicines he’d been prescribed. “Of course, the children came first and I had to do without my life-giving medications, which is why I’m terminally ill,” Billy writes.

Now SNAP covers a portion of their expenses, making sure that he, his wife and their two boys (“ages 2 and 5, so way too young to work”) have “JUST enough food for healthy meals.”

“So to CORRECT you,” he concludes, “about ‘can’t work’ and ‘don’t work’, [t]hey are sooo different. I know. I live it.”

Perhaps Congressman Cramer intended his Bible quote to refer only to able-bodied adults without dependents, whom the House SNAP bill would toss out of the program unless they work at least half time or manage to get a slot in a workfare or job training program.

However, the bill invites states to reap rewards from reducing their SNAP rolls by imposing work requirements on able-bodied adults with very young children, even if they’ve no one to care for them.

Also on some adults with disabilities — even those for whom paying work is infeasible.

This last is a feature that the Post‘s extensive story on the sponsor — Congressman Steve Southerland (R-FL) — failed to mention.

We do learn, however, that he too finds justification in the Bible — oddly in Adam’s duty to tend the Garden of Eden, which last time I checked, was neither paying work nor training for same.

But I digress. It’s hard to know whether Billy could have paid for his medications, without depriving his family of food and a home, if he’d signed up for SNAP earlier. The maximum benefit they could have received was nowhere near $2,000 a month.

But what if they’d been able to purchase subsidized health insurance, as the ACA will soon make possible? Too late to save Billy, it seems — and, of course, even more objectionable to Cramer and his colleagues than SNAP.

Which is why we’re wondering how long the government shutdown will last — and whether it will be able to honor the debts it’s already incurred.

If Billy is worried about his SSDI checks and reloads of the EBT card for his family’s SNAP benefits, he’s got good reason.

* I am quoting one of the familiar translations. The passage as posted on the Congressman’s Facebook page ended differently, but to the same effect.

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House Republicans Doom Farm Bill With Extremist SNAP Amendment

June 24, 2013

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.