The Senate approved a new five-year Farm Bill on Tuesday that does not impose the additional, stricter conditions for food assistance that conservative politicians have sought for years.
The vote tees up the second straight defeat for hard-liners on the right who want to make the government’s meager Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) even less generous. The prior Farm Bill fight came much closer to the doomsday scenario long feared among advocates for the poor and working class, as the House briefly broke the decades-old link between food assistance policy and farm aid policy. In the end, though, the outcome was much the same then as it is this winter: a modest bill that largely renews existing policy.
In each case, Republicans wanted to change eligibility rules for SNAP — commonly known as food stamps — in order to shrink enrollment over the coming years. The conservative movement typically portrays their policy preference as common-sense moderacy, explaining that it’s only fair that a food aid program require enrollees to work.
But the food stamps program already has work requirements. Republicans just want to raise those bars — and make it harder or even impossible for state administrators to temporarily waive work rules when economic conditions tighten and jobs are hard to find.
Such temporary easing of work rules for able-bodied adults without dependents — ABAWDS in food policy wonk parlance — is still likely to face new restrictions even after legislative Republicans caved again on their preferred statutory changes. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has promised to use his regulatory authority to constrict the process by which states seek such ABAWDS waivers in the future.
Whatever steps Perdue’s team takes to make food aid policy less responsive to future recessions, the legislative win for the poor captured in Tuesday’s Senate vote is significant. A million families totaling more than 2 million individuals would have likely lost SNAP eligibility under the Republicans’ preferred Farm Bill draft, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
At the same time, the compromise bill makes small strides toward improving a food stamps family’s odds of clearing the existing requirement that recipient adults work, volunteer, or undertake job training for a minimum number of hours each week.
Though conservatives have traditionally defended their emphasis on stricter weekly work hours by noting that even a person who can’t get hired can find the time to enroll in a training program, Congress has never funded such training and job search systems adequately to cover the need such restrictions would generate. The compromise bill steers just a few million new dollars into such training programs. But it changes guidelines for how that funding is directed in ways that should better steer that too-limited funding to job programs with proven results, CBPP’s Robert Greenstein said.
The program will continue to provide too little assistance for many of the tens of millions of people who rely on it to feed families. SNAP benefit levels have been substantially below the threshold recommended by nutrition and poverty experts for years. The win recorded Tuesday — and enabled in large part by Republicans’ fear of starting the process over next year with a Democrat-controlled House — is at best the protection of a too-thrifty program from growing even more inadequate to the needs of low-income Americans. But after almost two years when the GOP’s years-long campaign to shrink the program seemed destined to succeed, Tuesday’s vote sparked relieved celebration from some of those most directly involved in fighting hunger.
“This legislation is a win for the 46 million people across the United States served by the Feeding America network, as well as our nation’s growers and producers,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot of the national food bank network Feeding America. “For the millions of children, seniors, veterans and families who rely on the program for crucial nutrition assistance, this delivers welcome peace of mind.”