Farm bill creates latest push for ‘welfare reform’
WASHINGTON — Republicans’ next big push for “welfare reform” comes courtesy of a bill designed to pay for the nation’s farm programs.
The federal farm bill, which expires on Oct. 1, is aimed at providing federal support to farmers who may need it during tough times. But roughly 80 percent of the bill goes to federal food assistance, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
That typically makes the bill’s passage a bipartisan affair, with urban and rural lawmakers joining forces to both help feed the poor and to keep farmers facing financial difficulty from being driven out of business entirely.
But this year’s bill has been different. Instead, to Democrats’ fury, House Republicans see the farm bill as an opportunity to take a crack at revamping SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
A bill passed along party lines by the House Agriculture Committee last week would significantly beef up current SNAP work requirements. Republicans say the program should shrink — the economy has improved and the program was designed to be a hand up, not a handout. Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s cruel.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, compares it to the unemployed good friend who moves in with you.
“You’d be like, ‘Hey, man, I’m glad to help you out for a while, but are you going to go to any job interviews?'” he said. “We would do that! And somehow, when the government does it, it’s mean. And we have to be willing to do what we would do even for our friends or we’re not going to get this spending under control.”
Melissa Boteach, the senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, counters, “Taking away someone’s food isn’t going to help them find a job any faster.”
Current law requires able — bodied adults between 18 and 49 with no dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or receive an equivalent amount of job training to qualify for benefits.
Participants can be unemployed for three months during a three-year period, but beyond that, face the risk of losing their benefits. States have the flexibility to loosen that requirement or beef it up, depending on their preference. The disabled, seniors and those taking care of children are exempt from the work requirement.
The new GOP-pushed measure would change that age range to 18 to 59. It also would impose the work requirements on those with children over age six.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said the new requirements include “some of the most punitive provisions I’ve ever seen in doing 30 years of doing this work.”
“I’ve never seen anything as cruel as this piece of legislation,” she said.
But its defenders say the bill will help refocus the program into one that helps those who cannot help themselves.
“The economy’s in great shape,” said Robert Doar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “There are opportunities out there. The labor force participation is still below what it was at the beginning of the Great Recession. There are still people who are eligible to work who are remaining on the sidelines.”
He said that more than 9 million Americans now receiving the benefits “could work.”
“I think most Americans believe the purpose of programs like the food stamp benefit is to help people move out of poverty through earnings, not to keep them more comfortable or less uncomfortable in poverty,” he said.
SNAP helps to feed some 40 million low-income Americans. In Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said, some 1.4 million people participate. Of that group, more than 700,000 are children. Around 200,000 are seniors. And 360,000 are people with disabilities. That means the work requirements would apply to perhaps 10 percent getting SNAP benefits — hardly the system-wide reform advertised.
The bill also would allocate federal dollars to help states create job-training programs for those who must meet the work requirement.
Democrats, however, argue that money isn’t nearly enough.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Cleveland Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said that states will have to develop training programs to comply with the bill. And there’s no requirement, she said, that training leads to work.
“We are, in fact, creating a bureaucracy at the state and local level,” she said, adding that the bill doesn’t include enough money to actually pay for that bureaucracy.
But Doar disputes the notion that the bill underfunds job-training programs, saying that states and localities also have job-training resources. “I think they could make substantial, significant progress to helping people move out of poverty with the resources being offered here,” said Doar, a former commissioner of social services for the state of New York.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Urbana Republican who has long championed welfare reform, said the move is overdue.
He said reforming welfare would “help everyone — help the economy, help the budget, help employers and most importantly, help people stuck in the dependency welfare lifestyle.”
“Every single day when I’m out and about in the district, I’m talking to employers who are finding it difficult to find people to work,” he said. “There are employment needs out there.”
Still, he’s not sure if he’ll back the bill when it comes to the floor of the House. He’s concerned about the money devoted to workforce development. “I’m nervous about another government program,” he said.
And he knows it will be a hard sell in the Senate, where the GOP majority is far more narrow. He said if Congress can’t reform welfare as part of its agriculture bill, it should consider a short-term extension until it can do so.
“I want to make sure it’s the right tough-love approach that is going to help people get a better position in life and recognizes the fact that the taxpayers are paying for this,” he said.