Ever since the Republican Party scored its electoral trifecta, gaining control of the White House and both houses of Congress, anti-hunger activists have been preparing for big fights over the nation’s food assistance safety net. The three main arenas for this contest are: the federal budget, Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation, and the Farm Bill.

The budget proposals, released annually by the House Budget Committee and by the Presidential administration in power, have only a limited effect on the actual budget, which is crafted in a series of deals among Appropriations subcommittees and House and Senate leaders. In recent years this process has been affected by the need to raise the debt ceiling in order to prevent the government from shutting down. Nevertheless, these budget plans are useful as windows into the thinking of prominent players. A companion piece in this issue details the threats to SNAP [The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps] and WIC [The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] in President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget. Threats to SNAP and WIC by Trump Administration’s Proposed Budget.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) legislation is currently on hold. It is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, although Congress often misses the deadline and gives itself an extension by means of a continuing resolution. A series of continuing resolutions has extended the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act for the time being, so the current energy of both would-be reformers and defenders of current programs is focused on the Farm Bill, which is very much in play in Washington. Looking across all three of these arenas and considering legislation introduced or passed in the past five years, the following components of the conservative agenda stand out:

  1. Cost cutting: restricting eligibility and limiting benefits
  2. Expanding work requirements: reducing “dependency”
  3. Shifting responsibility to states and localities
  4. Program integrity: eliminating fraud and erroneous payments
  5. Promoting healthy eating

The remarkable bill that passed the House Agriculture Committee on a strict party line vote on April 18 and will soon be considered by the full House embodies all of these objectives.

Cost Cutting

Conservatives have long argued that the federal nutrition programs are too expensive, that the nation cannot afford them and that they fuel the budget deficit. The scale of the recent tax cuts accruing largely to the nation’s wealthiest households[1] weakens this as a philosophical argument, but it remains an important part of the conservative agenda. There are two fundamental strategies: reducing benefits and limiting participation. The House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill would cut benefits in the SNAP program by approximately $5.3 billion over the next 10 years by eliminating the ability of states to coordinate SNAP benefits with low-income energy assistance, what advocates call “heat and eat” provisions. It would reduce participation by restricting states’ ability to align assets tests with other state means tested programs and to screen households with incomes above the gross income test of 130% of the poverty line. The proposed elimination of “broad based categorical eligibility” would also restore the benefits cliff effect, in which a small increase in income can lead to a total loss of benefits, further restricting participation, and eliminate automatic eligibility for free school meals for children.

Expanding Work Requirements

Much of the anticipated savings in the bill are reinvested in work-related activities. Although promoted by GOP leaders as an antidote to “dependency ” and the promotion of a pathway out of poverty through work, the expansion of work requirements in the House draft Farm Bill is widely regarded by SNAP advocates as primarily another method of limiting participation.[2] The bill increases the pool of those required to complete 20 hours a week of work or job training in order to keep benefits by including parents whose youngest child is 6 or older and raising the ceiling age to 60 from 50. Further, the bill would raise this work requirement to 25 hours per week beginning in 2026. A current provision that exempts college student parents with young children from the work requirement if adequate child care is not available would be terminated. The bill requires states to offer a SNAP Employment and Training (E &T) slot to every eligible participant, and provides a substantial increase in funding for E &T, though advocates claim that the proposed grant amounts are not sufficient to provide “meaningful and robust job training programs and support services such as child care and transportation.”[3] They point out that the 2014 Farm Bill funded 10 pilot E &T programs and recommend that the creation of an expanded E&T program await the results of those pilots.

Shifting Responsibility to States and Localities

It is worth noting what is NOT in the draft Farm Bill: it does not propose block-granting the SNAP Program, long a goal of many members of the House GOP leadership. It does, however, impose extensive new requirements on states while limiting their ability to obtain waivers to enable them to adapt the program to local conditions. Of particular concern is a requirement that states monitor recipients’ compliance with work requirements on a monthly basis, necessitating a big expansion of state administrative agencies. Although the conservative ideology promotes increased discretion for state and local entities, this legislation appears to reduce state discretion and flexibility while increasing rigid programmatic and reporting requirements.

Program Integrity

The claim that food assistance programs are riddled with “fraud and abuse” and serving many ineligible people has been another consistent theme in the conservative reform agenda. The current draft legislation allows more identifying information such as biometrics to be added to EBT cards. Further, it calls for the creation of a national enrollment database intended to prevent people from receiving SNAP in more than one jurisdiction. Such a database risks putting the privacy of all SNAP participants at risk in order to identify the small number that may be double dipping (fewer than two tenths of one percent in a smaller scale test in five states).[4]

Healthy Eating

Conservatives and liberals might find common ground on the concern that SNAP promote healthy eating. The draft Farm Bill increases funding for the Gus Schumacher Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program and for SNAP Nutrition Education and provides additional funding for a retail incentive pilot program to provide bonuses to SNAP households based of their purchases of fluid milk, vegetables and fruit.

The future of this House bill is far from certain. Some conservative members of the House feel that the SNAP changes do not go far enough, and others, satisfied with the SNAP changes, dislike farm subsidy provisions. Rural representatives are trying to predict how the farm income support provisions will interact with the Trump administration’s trade renegotiations and its wavering position on the renewable fuel standard, a provision that affects the market for corn. Even if the bill passes the House, it is unlikely to be accepted by the Senate, where the Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition is working on a bill of its own, one that Chairman Pat Robertson has described as “bi-partisan.” It looks like another lively year in the Farm Bill cycle.[5]

By Jan Poppendieck

[1] Estimates from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculate that the richest 1 percent of households, those with incomes higher than $607,090, stand to receive a total tax cut of more than $84 billion in 2019 alone, almost one and a half times the amount needed to fund the SNAP program. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2018/05/01/450214/tax-cuts-top-1-percent-cost-snap/

[2] See https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/chairman-conaways-farm-bill-would-increase-food-insecurity-and-hardship

[3] Food Research and Action Center’s Analysis of H.R.2—The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. Available on line at http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/frac-analysis-hr2-agriculture-and-nutrition-act-2018.pdf

[4] https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/chairman-conaways-farm-bill-would-increase-food-insecurity-and-hardship

[5] See Jerry Hagstrom, “Farm-bill fight gets messier,” National Journal Daily, 04.25.18 and Jerry Hagstrom “The Farm Bill’s Tough Path,” National Journal Daily, 05.09.18.