The GOP farm bill actually punishes working families receiving SNAP

The devil is in the details.

Sisters Cruz Sanchez, left, of Mattapan, and Frances Rosado, of Dorchester, shop at Tropical Foods in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
Sisters Cruz Sanchez, left, of Mattapan, and Frances Rosado, of Dorchester, shop at Tropical Foods in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

Next week, the House will vote on a farm bill largely constructed by Republicans. The bill, which traditionally has been a bipartisan effort, will re-authorize a number of farm and nutrition assistance programs — this includes funds for food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

One of the most controversial parts of the farm bill are the tough work requirements for SNAP recipients. The work requirements are sure to please outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has tried to restrict access to government assistance programs ever since he was elected to Congress 20 years ago.

They are also sure to make President Donald Trump happy. Reportedly Trump will veto the bill unless even tougher work requirements are implemented. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, SNAP recipients are already subject to some work requirements.

Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation show 58 percent of working-age, nondisabled SNAP households are employed while receiving benefits; that figure rises to 62 percent for households with children.


Hidden in the House farm bill draft, however, is a sinister measure that could harm families receiving SNAP who are already working, the very group the GOP claims to support. The move exposes the Republican party’s true end game: the goal has never been to lift low-income families out of poverty, but rather to punish them by creating more bureaucratic hoops for them to jump through.

The farm bill will strike a provision called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows states to enroll their residents in SNAP if they can prove they qualify for other income-based public assistance programs. It provides a safety net for families and individuals working low-wage jobs that put them right above the income cutoff for SNAP.

The policy is extremely popular, with 42 states currently using broad-based categorical eligibility.

Those who benefit from the program are mainly low-income working families with an income close to SNAP’s cutoff of 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to roughly $1,702 a month for a family of three. These families are earning an income, yet still face significant costs like child care, transportation, or medical expenses, which make it difficult to afford food.


“A single mother with two children working full time at $12.50 an hour would have income at 129 percent of the poverty level and receive about $142 a month from SNAP, making up about 7 percent of her total monthly income,” the Center on Budget Budget and Policy Priorities estimates. “If her hourly wage increased by just 50 cents (or $87 a month), lifting her income just above 130 percent of the federal poverty limit, the family would become ineligible for SNAP under the federal income eligibility cut-off.”

This is where categorical eligibility comes in.

The 42 states that adopted the policy can create a SNAP cutoff level to reflect their own cost of living. In California, for example, the cutoff is 200 percent of the federal poverty level because rents and childcare costs are much higher.

“Categorical eligibility is critical for Californians because it allows for low-income families to get SNAP benefits even if their income doesn’t reflect the federal poverty level once you factor in cost of living,” Jared Call, managing policy advocate at California Food Policy Advocates told ThinkProgress.

The policy also helps promote work by slowly phasing out SNAP benefits as a household gains more earnings.

The CPBB, however, estimates that by striking categorical eligibility from the farm bill, households close to the income threshold that begin to make earnings slightly above the federal threshold would lose all of their SNAP benefits at once.  That could leave the family worse off than before their wage increase.

Credit: CBPP
Credit: CBPP

“If you think about someone working a minimum wage job in the service industry, they don’t have control over their hours or schedule,” Call said. “Without categorical eligibility, they would have to report the extra earnings and be cut off from SNAP completely.”


In rural areas, categorical eligibility is essential for low-income families on SNAP that need multiple vehicles to travel long distances into town. Without it, families would have to claim a second car as an asset, and sell it off to meet SNAP’s federal requirements of one car per family.

Eliminating categorical eligibility would also jeopardize free school lunch for low-income children. The traditional way for a child to recieve free school lunch is through a paper application filled out by the child’s parent. In states that implemented categorical eligibility, however, a child whose family receives SNAP benefits is automatically enrolled by the district into the free school lunch program, ensuring that every child whose family is struggling to make ends meet is guaranteed one meal a day. Roughly 275,000 students would be in jeopardy of losing their free lunches if categorical eligibilty was eliminated.

Above all, curtailing categorical eligibility and imposing tougher work requirements just creates more red tape for low-income families. The policies proposed in the House version of the farm bill don’t encourge work, but rather punish families already working.