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Top Republicans in House and Senate Press on SNAP Work Requirements

A small group of negotiators will write the final version of the $87-billion-a-year farm bill in the weeks ahead, and they are under pressure from high-ranking conservatives in Congress to require millions of people to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said over the weekend that work requirements are “really important” in a booming economy.

Food stamps account for three fourths of farm bill spending and are the biggest issue in reconciling House and Senate versions of the panoramic legislation, which ranges from crop subsidies to food aid and rural development. The Republican-written farm bill would apply more stringent work requirements to a larger number of people than now affected. The Senate rejected a work-requirement package, 68-30, before passing its farm bill on a bipartisan 86-11 roll call.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn urged farm bill negotiators “to take another look” at the work requirements in the House bill. “I was somewhat disappointed,” Cornyn said at the end of last week, that the Senate bill did not include similar language. Cornyn supported the 25-hour-a-week work requirement that was defeated in the Senate. Only Republicans voted for it. Similarly, only Republicans voted for the House farm bill.

In a video posted by the House Agriculture Committee, Scalise describes work requirements as a “really important” part of the farm bill. “What we need to do is make sure if there are jobs out there, which there are for people, we ought to make sure that people are getting into the workforce. And we put really good work requirements in place to help people get off food stamps and back into the workforce so they can become part of the American dream.”

At present, able-bodied food stamp recipients are required to register for work and to accept a suitable job if offered. The work requirements of the House bill would affect an estimated 7 million “work capable” adults ages 18-59. The bill also tightens eligibility rules for SNAP. The combined effect would be a reduction in SNAP rolls of 2 million people, according to analysts. If people do not meet the 20-hour target, they would be required to spend an equivalent amount of time in job training or workfare to retain benefits. States would be given $1 billion a year for training programs for an estimated 3 million people annually.

The bulk of food stamp recipients, nearly two thirds, are children, elderly, or handicapped, and are not expected to work. So-called able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without dependents are limited to three months of benefits in a three-year period.

Scalise and Cornyn both cited the low U.S. unemployment rate as justification for stronger work requirements. Food stamp enrollment was 39.3 million at latest count. Enrollment is well above the 26 million or so before the 2008-2009 recession but significantly lower than the peak of 47.6 million in 2013 during the slow economic recovery. The think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says over the years, more and more eligible household have signed up for SNAP.

House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, who drafted the farm bill, says the combination of job training and work requirements will form a springboard for low-income Americans into higher wages. Democrats say the GOP package creates an impenetrable paperwork maze to disqualify people.

Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, who is in charge of the House-Senate negotiations, told the Washington Examiner there is no agreement yet on food stamps. “We think we have a pretty good bill,” said Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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