WASHINGTON -- After the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamp funding by 5 percent last week, Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.) trumpeted the legislation's work requirements for nutrition assistance.
"Not only does this legislation restore the integrity of this safety-net program and encourage beneficiaries to become more self-sufficient, but it will also ensure that the benefits are available to those who need them most," Hurt said in a statement on his website.
But Hurt told a local paper that parts of his Southside Virginia district could be spared from having to work for food stamps. His office said able-bodied adults in high-unemployment areas like Danville, Martinsville and Henry County could keep drawing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits without having to obey the new requirement that they find jobs or enroll in training.
"Under the House proposal, the states would be given certain flexibility to grant waivers in certain cases depending on unemployment levels and/or hardship," Hurt's office told Brittany Hughes of the Danville Register & Bee.
Hurt was not one of the 15 moderate Republicans who voted against the bill, but his statement to the local press suggests he and they share some of the same sensitivity "to the struggles that people are having," as one of the GOP nays, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), put it after the vote.
The 1996 welfare reform law allowed able-bodied adults without dependents, known by policy wonks as "ABAWDs," to receive food stamps for only three months unless they worked or enrolled in training at least 20 hours per week. The law gave states authority to wave the requirement in times of high unemployment, something most states currently do.
The House voted Thursday to stop states from waiving the requirement, a policy change that would push 1.7 million Americans off assistance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As liberal critics of the House legislation have noted, the measure doesn't require states to make training programs available to food stamp applicants if jobs are scarce.
But a little-discussed provision of the new legislation would allow states to exempt 15 percent of able-bodied adults from the requirement. The calculation would be based on the number of ABAWDs who receive benefits in a given state as counted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the most recent data available, 74,000 able-bodied Virginians without dependents received SNAP benefits in 2011. That means that under the House bill, next year Virginia could give food stamps to 15 percent of that total, or 11,100 people -- if it wanted to. It's unclear how the more limited waiver process would work. More than 36,000 households receive SNAP benefits in Hurt's district alone.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive critic of the GOP bill, has said the exemptions approach is flawed.
"Since the number of exemptions is very small compared to the number of people affected by the three-month cut-off provision and many of the affected individuals have similar circumstances — they are unemployed in a weak economy, struggling to make ends meet, and often facing destitution — it is difficult for states to determine which of those individuals should receive exemptions and which should not," the Center's Dottie Rosenbaum, Stacy Dean and Robert Greenstein wrote in a recent report.
The House legislation is unlikely to become law in its entirety; it will have to be reconciled with a more moderate food stamps measure that passed the Senate earlier this year, and both chambers must approve a final compromise.
This story has been updated to include analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.