OPINION
07/05/2018 06:00 am ET

House Republicans Are Still Fixated On Making It Harder For Poor People To Eat

The House recently voted 213-211 to pass a sweeping farm bill that, if enacted, would shred our country's social safety
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
The House recently voted 213-211 to pass a sweeping farm bill that, if enacted, would shred our country's social safety net.

House Republicans have kept busy on the sidelines these past several weeks while most of us trained our focus on the immigration crisis.

On June 19, the GOP proposed a plan to “balance” the country’s budget over nine years that would eviscerate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to pay for the more than $1 trillion Republican tax cut that most analysts say will benefit the wealthiest Americans.

Then, two days later, the House voted 213-211 to pass a sweeping farm bill that, if enacted, would institute huge changes to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ― America’s primary food program that is more commonly referred to as food stamps.

The Senate has its own farm bill, approved on June 28, that is much more bipartisan in agreement and that doesn’t include those aforementioned significant changes to SNAP.

But to pass a version at some point this year, the two chambers are going to have to find some common ground amid an election season that sees all 435 members of the House and one-third of Senators up for re-election.

The House farm bill has been promoted as a way to help end people’s reliance on government assistance and pull themselves up out of poverty by closing “loopholes that create disincentives to work.” Supporters of the legislation imply that these loopholes amount to fraud, which could not be further from the truth.

The attack on SNAP is part of a larger attack on our social safety net that threatens a delicate balance in the United States.

In fact, the number of hours people have to work or train each week to qualify for benefits doesn’t change with the House’s proposed bill: Working-age adults would still have to prove 20 hours per week.

So what’s really changing?

According to the Food Research and Action Center, a food policy think tank, the devil is indeed in the details. Under the proposed bill, working-age adults will be defined as adults between the ages of 18 and 60 (instead of the current 50). This change would ignore the persistent problem of ageism in hiring practices that may well prejudice a job market against older workers and put millions of older Americans at serious risk for food insecurity.

The House bill also eliminates a so-called “loophole” that exempted college student parents from work requirements in the absence of adequate child care. This would effectively force such parents to choose between work or school, when the latter could result in a much higher-paying job down the road.

More egregiously, the work requirements in the proposed House bill would also apply to adults with children 6 years of age or older. This ignores the very real challenges parents face in finding adequate ― and affordable ― child care. Much low-income work (indeed, many American jobs in general) no longer falls between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and SNAP requires participants to take a job if it is offered. But what if that job means your kids are home alone at night because evening child care is too hard to find and pay for? And if a person can find a 9-5 job, what happens in the summer, when school’s out and kids need to be looked after?

The data is clear: SNAP works.

These are realities that many American families face. Just because a child has graduated kindergarten doesn’t mean she or he can stay at home alone – in some states, it’s flat-out illegal.

Other farm bill “loopholes” deal with income flexibility. For example, some states have recently been allowed to apply a family’s net income rather than gross income to their needs assessment, which allows those on the edge of food insecurity to receive or keep benefits even if their income “modestly” exceeds the standard 130 percent of federal poverty levels (In 2017, that meant a gross income of $31,980 for a family of four.)

Eliminating this “loophole” would mean that a family on the cusp may well have to choose between accepting a modest raise and losing benefits, or turning the raise down and keeping them. It would also kick families out of SNAP who are just above the threshold, adding them to a large number of Americans who are food insecure but whose incomes are too high for federal assistance.

How, exactly, does closing this “loophole” disincentivize work? How does it help pull people out of poverty? It doesn’t.

The House bill cuts just under $20 billion; however, rather than helping to incentivize work and lift people out of poverty, it will instead make it more difficult for American workers to make ends meet. It will also make it more difficult for them to work.

Hungry workers are not productive workers, and hungry kids have a hard time keeping up with their peers.

... a family on the cusp may well have to choose between accepting a modest raise and losing benefits, or turning the raise down and keeping them.

SNAP, on the other hand, does help keep people out of poverty. According to a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP kept 10.3 million people, including almost 5 million children, out of poverty in 2012. It kept another 5.1 million people out of “deep poverty” ― below half of the federal poverty line. In 2015, according to a study by the Urban Institute, SNAP removed 8.3 million people from poverty.

The data is clear: SNAP works.

Nearly 40 percent of the more than 142 million jobs in the United States pay a median wage of less than $15 an hour, and many of those pay less than $12 an hour. These workers pick, transport, sell, prepare and serve our food. They care for our children and our grandparents. They do our hair and change our oil.

The attack on SNAP is part of a larger attack on our social safety net that threatens a delicate balance in the U.S. We rely heavily, every day, on low-wage labor, and corporations rely on the government to supplement the incomes of their workers so they can hand out billions to shareholders. Cutting SNAP and Medicaid, in particular, is a risk that threatens the well-being of millions of American families.

Shredding the social safety net won’t reduce poverty in the U.S. ― it will deepen it. If we lack the political will to have a real conversation about wage stagnation for American workers, then keeping the social safety net in place will protect our most vulnerable citizens.

Food is a basic necessity. Do we really want to say that people are too poor to deserve it? That’s what the House’s proposed farm bill would do.

Julia Hudson-Richards is a food activist and historian who studies the environment, food, and the people who produce it. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.

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