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Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:47 PM
Updated: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:47 PM
WASHINGTON — Republicans’ next big push for welfare reform has come courtesy of a bill designed to pay for the nation’s farm programs.
The federal farm bill, which expires Oct. 1, is aimed at providing federal support to farmers who may need it during tough times. But roughly 80 percent of the bill goes to federal food assistance, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, making the bill’s passage traditionally a bipartisan affair, with urban and rural lawmakers joining forces to both help feed the poor and to keep farmers facing rough times from being driven out of business entirely.
But this year’s bill has been different. Instead, to Democrats’ fury, House Republicans see the farm bill as an opportunity to take a crack at welfare reform.
A bill passed on party lines by the House Agriculture Committee last week would significantly beef up current SNAP work requirements. Republicans say the program should shrink – the economy has improved and the program was designed to be a hand up, not a hand out. Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s cruel.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, compares it to the unemployed good friend who moves in with you. “You’d be like, ‘hey, man, I’m glad to help you out for awhile, but are you going to go to any job interviews?’” he said. “We would do that! And somehow when the government does it it’s mean. And we have to be willing to do what we would do even for our friends or we’re not going to get this spending under control.”
Counters Melissa Boteach, the senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress: “Taking away someone’s food isn’t going to help them find a job any faster.”
Here’s how the bill would change work requirements: Current law requires able-bodied adults between 18 and 49 with no dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or receive an equivalent amount of job training in order to receive the benefits.
They’re allowed to be unemployed for three months during a three-year period, but beyond that, face the risk of losing their benefits. And states have the flexibility to loosen that requirement or beef it up, depending on their preference. The disabled, seniors, and those taking care of children are exempt from the work requirement.
The bill passed last week by the House Agriculture Committee changes that age range to the ages of 18 to 59. It also imposed the work requirements on those with children over age six. And it imposed a set of progressively tougher sanctions for those who can’t prove they’re working or receiving job training, starting with the loss of benefits for a year.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said the new requirements include “some of the most punitive provisions I’ve ever seen in doing 30 years of doing this work.”
“I’ve never seen anything as cruel as this piece of legislation,” she said.
But its defenders say the bill will help refocus the program into one that helps those who cannot help themselves.
“The economy’s in great shape,” said Robert Doar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “There are opportunities out there. The labor force participation is still below what it was at the beginning of the Great Recession. There are still people who are eligible to work who are remaining on the sidelines.”
He said more than nine million Americans to receive the benefits “could work.”
“I think most Americans believe the purpose of programs like the food stamp benefit is to help people move out of poverty through earnings, not to keep them more comfortable or less uncomfortable in poverty,” he said.
SNAP helps to feed some 40 million low income Americans. In Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said, some 1.4 million people participate. Of that group, more than 700,000 are children. Some 200,000 are seniors. And 360,000 are people with disabilities.
The bill also federal dollars to help states create job training programs for those who must meet the work requirement.
Democrats, however, argue that money isn’t nearly enough.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Cleveland Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said states will have to develop training programs to comply with the bill. And there’s no requirement, she said, that training leads to work. “We are, in fact, creating a bureaucracy at the state and local level,” she said, saying that the bill doesn’t include enough money to actually pay for that bureaucracy.
But Doar disputes the notion that the bill underfunded the job training programs, saying states and localities also have job training resources. “I think they could make substantial, significant progress to helping people move out of poverty with the resources being offered here,” said Doar, a former commissioner of social services for the state of New York.
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Urbana Republican who has long championed welfare reform, said the move is overdue.
He said reforming welfare would “help everyone – help the economy, help the budget, help employers and most importantly, help people stuck in the dependency welfare lifestyle.”
“Every single day when I’m out an about in the district, I’m talking to employers who are finding it difficult to find people to work,” he said. “There are employment needs out there.”
Still, he’s not sure if he’ll back the bill when it comes to the floor of the House, he said in an interview this week. He’s concerned about the money devoted to workforce development. “I’m nervous about another government program,” he said. And he knows it will be a hard sell in the Senate, where the majority is far more narrow. He said if Congress can’t reform welfare as part of its agriculture bill, it should consider a short-term extension until it can do so.
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BY THE NUMBERS
80 percent of the farm bill goes to federal food assistance
SNAP helps to feed some 40 million low income Americans.