House GOP bill would lock the poor out of food stamps if they don't work

Feeding America's most vulnerable children
Feeding America's most vulnerable children

Many food stamp recipients could be locked out of the program for up to three years if they fail to work or enroll in job training, under a bill proposed by House Republicans seeking to overhaul the government benefit.

The provision, one of several contained in the controversial House farm bill that lawmakers unveiled Thursday, would ratchet up the pressure on low-income Americans to find jobs. Work requirements and lockouts are becoming a popular tool among Republican lawmakers and state officials as they seek to move more people off of public assistance and into the labor force.

"Benefits are critically important and serve a vital role in the safety net aimed at catching people if they should fall into poverty," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway co-wrote in an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today. "But equally important is a focus on helping these same people climb back out of poverty."

The food stamp reforms are the latest step in the GOP's efforts to add or increase work requirements in various government benefit programs. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday directing federal agencies to promote employment for those on public assistance.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services began allowing states to mandate that certain Medicaid enrollees must work for the first time in the program's history, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development is looking into the issue for those in subsidized housing. The Department of Agriculture also wants to strengthen the work requirements in the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The House farm bill calls for expanding the number of people subject to work requirements. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who don't have minor children must work or enroll in a training program for 20 hours a week to receive benefits for more than three months every three years. About 3.5 million of the roughly 41 million people enrolled in SNAP are subject to this provision.

Related: Trump signs executive order pushing work requirements for the poor

The legislation would require those in their 50s to work and would extend the mandate to parents with school-age children, starting in fiscal 2021. (Most working-age adults who are not disabled or pregnant must currently register for work, accept a job if offered or maintain their current employment if they are working.)

This could double the number of people subject to work requirements, as well as reduce enrollment by roughly 1 million over a decade, according to Republican staff.

It would also mandate recipients to work or participate in a training program for a minimum of 25 hours a week starting in fiscal 2026. And, the legislation would invest $1 billion annually in SNAP Employment & Training programs and guarantee every enrollee a slot.

Those who fail to meet the criteria could be locked out for a year the first time they fail to meet the requirements and for three years for subsequent violations, unless they come into compliance.

The bill will also make it harder for some low-income folks to become eligible for food stamps by qualifying for other government assistance programs, a practice in use in more than 40 states. And it tightens the criteria for states to request waivers from the mandate.

Related: Trump administration seeks to require more people to work for food stamps

Republicans argue that this is the perfect time to enforce and expand work requirements because unemployment is near record lows and employers are looking to hire.

But consumer advocates say that such mandates will lead to millions of people losing crucial assistance. Instead, they say, the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans should look to raise the minimum wage and strengthen work support programs, such as subsidized child care and transportation assistance.

Also, many low-income Americans already hold jobs. In households that receive SNAP and have at least one non-disabled adult, 58% are employed and 82% worked in the year prior to or after enrollment, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

"Taking away people's food is not going to help them find work," said Melissa Boteach, senior vice president of the center's Poverty to Prosperity Program.

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