Millions could lose food stamps under new Farm Bill

A truck travels along a dirt road near a grain farm in Hesper Township, Iowa. The 2018 farm bill was defeated on the floor of the House May 18. It could back for a second vote in late June, but Catholic and other rural life advocates see a need for improvements in the measure before then. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)A truck travels along a dirt road near a grain farm in Hesper Township, Iowa. The 2018 farm bill was defeated on the floor of the House May 18. It could back for a second vote in late June, but Catholic and other rural life advocates see a need for improvements in the measure before then. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

It may be called a farm bill, but about 80 percent of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 is focused on food distribution, says Jim Ennis, director of Catholic Rural Life. If the farm bill hits the floor of the House of Representatives this week, new eligibility requirements for the nation’s food stamp program will be a major focus of debate.

The bill proposes to spend $865 billion over the next 10 years, including $664 billion on nutrition programs (nearly 76.5 percent of all farm bill spending) and about $200 billion on commodity programs, crop insurance and conservation programs. “It really is a food and a farm bill,” Mr. Ennis says. Stakes are high this year as near-record numbers of Americans continue to rely on federal food assistance programs despite the allegedly booming economy and as farmers seek to recover from a 52 percent drop in net farm income since the last farm bill passed.


House Republicans will be returning to a fight over raising work requirements for the nation’s 42 million recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after a previous effort to pass the farm bill (a new version is renegotiated every five years) flamed out last month during an internecine G.O.P. spat over immigration policy. The bill was held hostage by House members seeking tougher measures on immigration than G.O.P. moderates were willing to endorse. House Republicans are having another go at it this week, though the immigration debate is still rancorous.

Beyond that spat, the bill itself is riddled with problems of its own, according to Mr. Ennis. The money saved by the various cuts and eligibility tightening in the current farm bill do not amount to much savings overall, especially in a federal budget year characterized by a ballooning deficit following deep tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest. But the proposed changes to the farm bill, Mr. Ennis says, do reflect the lack of a critical rural voice in Congress, as reductions to important programs are hashed out “while no one is looking.”

House Republicans will be returning to a fight over raising work requirements for the nation’s 43 million recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after a previous effort to pass the farm bill flamed out last month.

Democrats are united against the current version of the bill, which among other eligibility-tightening measures requires “able-bodied” SNAP recipients from 18 to 49, without dependents to work or seek job training for at least 80 hours per month within a month of receiving benefits. The bill for the first time adds work requirements for adults who are caregivers to children over 6 years of age and includes new work requirements for SNAP recipients aged 50 to 59.

A single violation would be enough to make a SNAP recipient ineligible for the program for a full year.

Critics say the additional eligibility requirements will save a few federal dollars by creating new bureaucratic hoops for low-income people to jump through each month, with the perhaps unspoken expectation that many would not be able to do so. In April, Catholic Rural Life joined the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in opposing the changes to the program. In a letter to Congress, the bishops said: “By eliminating state options for broad-based categorical eligibility, the bill could cause as many as 2 million individuals to lose their benefits, and potentially remove state flexibility in 42 states.”

In its review of the program, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that about 40 percent of SNAP participants nationwide are children and roughly 10 percent are elderly. “Meanwhile,” they write, “able-bodied adults without dependents…the population at the center of the highly contested work requirements—make up only eight percent of all SNAP participants.”

Even at a time of low unemployment, a lot of working people still need the “lifeline” of the SNAP program, Mr. Ennis says. Despite the end of the Great Recession, a growing percentage of U.S. full-time workers finding jobs that pay only at or near minimum wage rely on the program to put food on their families’ tables each month. “We have a lot of food insecurity in this country just now,” Mr. Ennis says.

He thinks the eligibility changes will hurt working families just above the poverty line, especially the demand to meet work requirements within one month of joining the program. “That’s putting significant pressure on folks who are already stressed out.”

House members supporting the changes say they are attempting to prevent able-bodied Americans from becoming dependent on government handouts. But behind the rhetoric and ideology, Mr. Ennis is concerned the real issue is a Republican effort to cut spending any way they can as recent tax cuts accelerate the growth of the annual federal budget deficit.

In fact House Republicans seek to reduce spending on SNAP by a mere $2 billion a year, though the policy could affect millions of people. The average monthly household benefit is $259.

“Coming just four months after a tax-cut bill that will cost $1.9 trillion over ten years (including interest costs) and lavishes tax cuts on wealthy individuals and large, profitable corporations, the SNAP proposals would further widen the nation’s economic divide,” researchers from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities charge.

Ironically, it may be families living in farming communities who will suffer the most if eligibility is tightened. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, nearly 8 million residents of rural counties rely on SNAP at some point during the year. “Research says the economy has improved” since the end of the Great Recession, Mr. Ennis says, “but the rural economy has not bounced back.” And when a company leaves a farm community, he says, rural workers have far fewer employment alternatives than their urban counterparts do and can have a harder time getting back on their feet.

Mr. Ennis is also not excited by changes to the subsidy program included in the current farm bill. The House bill opens major new loopholes allowing for unlimited subsidies that will continue to distort land prices and create an unfair playing field for family farmers, a statement released by Catholic Rural Life charges.

Even conservative analysts argue that rather than reforming a system that has disproportionately rewarded large-scale or wealthy farmers, the 2018 farm bill has created more opportunities for big commercial farmers to claim the lion’s share of federal subsidy supports. Hidden in Sec. 1603 of the new farm bill is an exemption for “pass-through” businesses from the means-testing requirements of the subsidy program. CNN reports the change means “that with a simple accounting trick, billionaire farm owners would once again be eligible for lucrative farm subsidies.” Another measure opens eligibility for subsidy payments up to $125,000 to farmers’ extended family members—nieces, nephews, cousins—who merely have to demonstrate a vague relationship to the “family farm.”

These expanded opportunities for subsidy abuses mean fewer resources for the majority of small, working family farms, Mr. Ennis complains. “We’re trying to create a just and fair farm bill that benefits all farmers, not just the largest farmers,” he says.

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Mr. Ennis is also troubled by deep cuts in funding and the reach of the conservation and land stewardship program hosted under the farm bill. The program had created significant incentives for farmers to incorporate conservation techniques into their farming, he says. The 2018 proposed reductions may mean more highly erodible land will be returned to production, and that will mean more loss of topsoil and more pesticide or nitrogen runoff into water resources.

The bill also cuts back micro-enterprise assistance and loans in rural districts, he says. Training and financial support for small-scale entrepreneurism in rural communities has been an important buttress against population and job decline in farming counties. As small-scale manufacturing leaves town and agricultural mechanization reduces labor needs, the viability of farming communities can become seriously threatened.

He sees such interventions not as federal handouts, but as hands up. “We need to invest in rural America,” Mr. Ennis says. “It’s the backbone of the nation.”

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J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

What are the statistics? You won't see America publish them. The country is at full employment so why is food stamp distribution double what is was under Bill Clinton? In 2000 there were 17 million on food stamps. Last year it was 42 million. The reductions are modest and logical given the unemployment rate.

Kevin Clarke
7 months 3 weeks ago

The number of SNAP recipients is mentioned in the third paragraph. There is also a modest discussion of why so many working Americans remain eligible for food assistance in the body of the article.

J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

But the number has no meaning if not compared to previous numbers. It sounds like a draconian cut rather than higher than normal.

The typical Washington political ploy is to raise something by a large amount and then claim a small reduction will be negative. But when compared to normal the small reduction is still a large increase.

rose-ellen caminer
7 months 3 weeks ago

You don't work , you don't eat? Sounds like slavery. Even prisoners get to eat! Appalling this SNAP work requirement, and that it falls on the rural poor is no surprise; they are the ones who are also becoming addicted to opioids, as they have been left behind economically too. They have no political clout apparently; a marginalized group with no cache for compassionate liberal politicians and social activists to be concerned about.

Considering that one of our national tropes is that we are the "most compassionate, generous people on the face of the earth ,ever", we now won't feed our own rural poor? The whole idea of "work for your food stamps" from the country with the world's greatest industrial agriculture ever, when you are a person already struggling economically, is totally obscene!

J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

Put numbers to your claims. No one in America starves due to unfortunate circumstances.

Ellen B
7 months 2 weeks ago

That's easy to look up - go look up the food bank in your region. In my region, that is Harvesters which covers a 26-county area in KS & MO. According to Harvesters - 350,000 people in their region are food insecure, of those, 108,000 are children. Only 58% of those children qualify for SNAP, WIC or free or reduced price meals.

People may not be dying on the streets from hunger at this time, that is not the same as not being hungry. If you volunteer at a food bank, as I have, you will be amazed by the amount of hunger in this country.

Stuart Meisenzahl
7 months 3 weeks ago

It would be more balanced and effective if the Author pointed out that the concept of Farm Subsidies and Food Stamps were a New Deal invention. The case he makes describes the declining need for farm subsidies without noting the basic premise of the food stamp program as described by Roosevelt was as follows:

" relief [to the poor] is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." ... a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber" "we must preserve not only the bodies of the employed from destruction , but also their self respect, their self reliance and courage and determination. Therefore this Federal Government must and shall quit this system of relief"

In this original context the work requirement for the current proposed food stamp program seems quite reasonable.

rose-ellen caminer
7 months 3 weeks ago

What you are quoting is a Puritan ethos.[even liberal Dems can be Puritanical]. Either guarantee people a job with a living wage , or provide a guaranteed income, or give poor people food stamps. People are poor for many reasons, and linking food stamp to mandatory work requirements, is punitive. It is easy to talk about self reliance, courage, self respect[ blah, blah, blah] when you are employed or a have enough money to live on. Being unemployed and poor is not easy living. It takes determination and courage to get through every day. Going to work; having a set routine, a place to go , something to do when you get up every morning, that pays, is a breeze compared to not having a job."The days are long , the nights are long" for the unemployed poor.You want to add to the stress of being poor and unemployed, the stress of not being able to get food stamps? We are removing the stigma of mental illness, drug addiction, even having a criminal record, but we're going to now replace it with a stigma on the unemployed poor?
No J. Cosgrave ,people don't starve in the US, but there IS such a thing as food insecurity.I am personally aware of people, who are food insecure ,[ some have jobs, some don't].Forcing people to work to get food stamps is mean spirited and clueless about how difficult it can be for some people to find work or for some people to work consistently. And clueless about how hard life is for people who are unemployed and poor.

J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

You miss the point. How many people fit into your category of food insecurity. Right now there are 42 million on food stamps and unemployment is very low. When unemployment was 10% it was 40 million. Under Bill Clinton it was 17 million. Do you think all these additional people are food insecure. Maybe some are but the majority are not. The article goes after the Trump administration for a small cut back when the economy is booming. It is just another hit piece with little rational insight. Another example of using emotional appeals to get people to nod their heads.

Ellen B
7 months 2 weeks ago

If you are not making a living wage - YES, you are food insecure. You have to look no further than your regional food bank to see proof of that or perhaps volunteer with Catholic charities.

Stuart Meisenzahl
7 months 3 weeks ago

Rose Ellen
Please spare me the excuse of illiberality when speaking of FDR!: He invented the Farm Bill/Foodstamp program . It was the Lynch pin of his amelioration of the poor in the midst of the Depression . He is the Zeus of the Democratic Pantheon of Political Gods and Heroes......and yet he understood the fundamental human nature that hand outs can cripple as well as save and that a balance must be struck. Bill Clinton understood that as well and he initiated the work requirement which Obama then suspended!

Dolores Pap
7 months 3 weeks ago

Both our local ShopRite and Walmart held food drives to replenish the near empty county's food pantry, and from speaking to one of the organizers, I found out, that esp in the summer, the need for food goes up quite a bit because there's no breakfast or lunches when schools are closed. Thankfully, our wonderful community doesn't ask why people are hungry, nor do they question their moral fitness to receive help- they just roll up their sleeves and feed the hungry..

Rosemari Zagarri Prof
7 months 3 weeks ago

Oh yes. So much better to let the "undeserving poor" starve in our midst--just so we have the satisfaction of not coddling anyone.

John Hess
7 months 1 week ago

Jesus simply said to feed the poor. He didn't say to judge who is deserving and who is not.

Luis Gutierrez
7 months 3 weeks ago

Millions suffer eucharistic famine due to the shortage of priests.

Canon 1024 ~ "A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly."
Canon 1024 is an artificial contraceptive and abortifacient of female priestly vocations.

The Provisional Character of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

7 months 3 weeks ago

I have not accessed the comment portion of America for some time now. It is good to see that nothing has changed. Cosgrove and Meisenzahl continue to exhibit their tone deaf syndrome , which allows them to ignore facts that all of us are aware of along with a penchant for rewriting history. Folks just like them used to inhabit the comment pages of the National Catholic Reporter until it became too much for the publisher to handle causing the comment page to be closed. Since apparently no one in the editorial department is capable of modulating these two guys maybe it is time to close America's comment page.

Stanley Kopacz
7 months 3 weeks ago

A good suggestion. Commonweal shut its comments down as well. Don't miss the harpies.

J Cosgrove
7 months 3 weeks ago

which allows them to ignore facts that all of us are aware of along with a penchant for rewriting history.

We would all benefit by pointing out the facts ignored and the history rewritten. By not doing so and making derogatory remarks one does just the opposite and says the person is probably correct.

Stuart Meisenzahl
7 months 2 weeks ago

Try reading The Hill .."Work Requirements for Welfare Are Empowering" , 4/24/2018. Its short and to the point from a recognized centerist source. The "work requirement" which was established in 1996 under Clinton proved remarkably successful and confounded the critics who predicted there would be mass deprivation. That, sir is a 20 + year history which needs no rewriting. The fact that you would prefer to ignore this history seems remarkable.

Chuck Kotlarz
7 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Heyman, the source of some comments perhaps should concern us even more. Former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter referred to those who undermined him as “cannibals” who seek “the end of governing as we know it.” John Boehner, former House Speaker, called one member of the cause, “Lucifer in the flesh.” Neither of the two Republican’s comments were directed toward Democrats.

The quotes above come from Nancy MacLean’s book, “Democracy in Chains”, which can help explain the real intent of some comments.

James Schwarzwalder
7 months 3 weeks ago

The Farm Bill like many other topics is complex with many parts. Overall I think there is one glaring fallacy in the author's argument. The proposed changes to the farm bill, Mr. Ennis says, reflect the lack of a critical rural voice in Congress, as reductions to important programs are hashed out “while no one is looking." Not true in my opinion. In the Senate all states get two Senators regardless of size or population. It s pretty clear that the east and west coast states bordering the oceans and Illinois went for Hillary while Trump carried the middle and southern states, that is rural states. Trump (and numerous other Presidents) lost the popular vote, but won in the electoral college based on rural votes. Now I happen to advocate that all school breakfasts and lunches be paid for the Federal government for ALL students, regardless of income. No stigma there and those 53% of households who DO pay federal income taxes would get a benefit if they have school age children. Paid for breakfasts and lunches by the Fed's would free up income for those who now pay for their children's breakfasts and lunches and the savings could be used by parents to pay for expensive after school child care or day care for younger children not yet in school. These child care costs are back breaking for many younger families with two working parents. Secondly, according to the author the Bishops oppose eliminating state options for broad-based categorical eligibility under SNAP. Did the Bishops take that same position (keeping state options) when it came to states deciding to increase or not to increase enrollment in Medicaid as part of Obamacare? I think not. It's not that I oppose increasing Medicaid enrollment, but are the Bishops engaging in "pick and choose" policy analysis? I recall some years ago some Bishops panning "pick and choose" Christianity" or "Cafeteria Catholicism." And what about the notion of subsidiarity, that is decisions or actions are best taken at the lowest or smallest possible level?

Woody Pfister
7 months 3 weeks ago

What did St. Paul have to say about “work requirements?”

John Walton
7 months 2 weeks ago

2nd Thessalonians 3:8 "8 Neither did we eat any man's bread for nothing, but in labour and in toil we worked night and day, lest we should be chargeable to any of you."

Janice Yoo
7 months 2 weeks ago

I work in a market place, so I have seen many people purchasing with food stamps. When I see their grocery purchases, I can't believe that they got food stamps because they are lacking money to buy foods since many of them buy expensive fruits and snack with stamps..... I know that the program is to support people who can't afford food, but the current systems doesn't seem to be right.


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