House Republicans are on the cusp of passing food-stamps legislation that would enact significant cuts to the program and revive requirements that able-bodied adults also work if they receive food stamps for the long term.
“What we pushed for in the food-stamp bill was to put real work requirements in place,” says Representative Steve Scalise (R., La.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
“Most Americans get that there is a need for a safety net in our country, and we support that safety net,” Scalise adds. “But we also feel strongly that if somebody’s able to work, they ought to be working and not getting food stamps on the taxpayer benefits, and turning down jobs, and yet the current law encourages that.”
Food-stamp costs have soared during President Barack Obama’s time in office. In 2008, 28 million people received SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and it cost $38 billion. Fast forward five years, and the numbers look rather different: Forty-seven million people currently receive food stamps — which means that about one out of seven Americans are relying on the program — and in fiscal year 2012, the government spent $75 billion on these benefits. The House Republicans’ legislation would ax $40 billion from the program’s spending over ten years.
Since the recession, work requirements for able-bodied adults aged 18 to 50, who don’t have children and who are receiving food stamps for more than three months out of a three-year period, have mostly fallen by the wayside. Thanks to the stimulus package, the standards were waived for 2009–10, and since then, virtually all states have continued to waive the requirement.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about 1.7 million adults would lose SNAP benefits if the House’s bill became law. Unemployment rates remain high in many states, so the House’s bill would allow the work requirements to be satisfied by doing community-service work, such as removing trash from roadways and serving in soup kitchens.
The legislation, which is expected to go up for a vote today, is being pushed particularly by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.). “These programs aren’t designed to be permanent and have grown well beyond their safety-net purpose,” says Cantor spokesman Megan Whittemore. “We need a targeted, effective program that works, since hard-working middle-class families are footing the bill.”
“Through job training or workfare we can help people build the skills and experience they need to become self-sufficient in the future,” Whittemore adds.
The bill would also end the practice under which people are automatically considered eligible for SNAP when they are eligible for other government programs that assist low-income individuals. A significant number of people who are eligible for other assistance programs actually make more than the income requirements for SNAP. House Republicans wouldn’t change the income requirements for SNAP, but would enforce them more rigorously. According to the CBO, this will affect about 2.1 million Americans.
Criticism from the left, unsurprisingly, has been harsh: “Cutting food stamps is a dereliction of our moral duty,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) at a press conference yesterday, flanked by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), according to the Connecticut Mirror.
Meanwhile, House Republicans — who earlier this year had pushed for a bill that would have cut SNAP by $20 billion over ten years, half the cut proposed in the current bill — are taking the long view.
“We’re not going to get the perfect bill signed into law,” Scalise says, “but we know we can improve the policy dramatically from where it is today.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.