May 03, 2018

Why Does the Farm Bill Hurt the People it is Meant to Help?

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Within the House Agriculture Committee’s draft Farm Bill is one seemingly small change that will have devastating effects for working families. By eliminating one way to qualify for nutrition assistance, this version of the Farm Bill would take away benefits from working families who only need a little bit more help to create a better life for themselves. In a section titled “Update to Categorical Eligibility” the words “receives benefits” have been changed to “receives cash assistance or ongoing and substantial services,” effectively removing nutrition assistance for working families who are eligible for other government support.

This may not seem like much, but we’ve unpacked what this harmful change will mean for American families who depend on SNAP to make ends meet.

To understand what damage these words will do, we must first understand what categorical eligibility is. Simply put, it is the idea that if a state has already spent the time and effort to determine that someone is eligible for one type of government assistance in order to lift themselves and their family out of poverty, that same person should be eligible for other support as well without undertaking the full application and vetting process again. Categorical eligibility streamlines the SNAP eligibility process, sparing families struggling to get by from frustrating hassle and saving states precious time and expense. Put another way, if you sprain your ankle and your doctor writes you a prescription for the swelling caused by your injury, you don’t have to leave the office, make a new appointment, and come back on another day to see if you qualify for the crutches you will need in order to heal.

The House Farm Bill proposal significantly narrows the helpful flexibility options of categorical eligibility, limiting the ability of states to provide nutrition assistance to individuals and families who have some income but are still in need of government support. Under current law, families with income that places them over 130% of the Federal Poverty Level would not qualify for SNAP under the strict federal guidelines. But in many places in America, a family making slightly more than that will still struggle to afford housing, healthcare, transportation, education, and food.

For example, a family of four with an income of $2,887 per month (138% of the FPL) makes too much money to qualify for SNAP. Given that the formula for the Federal Poverty Level is a nationwide measure based on the cost of food in 1963 and adjusted for inflation—but not for the rising cost of other expenses—it makes sense that states be given some leeway in deciding not to kick families off nutrition assistance when they reach an arbitrary income level if they are still struggling to make ends meet.

Over 40 states currently use broad-based categorical eligibility, a provision in the current federal guidelines for SNAP that provides states with the option of a helpful flexibility to adjust the upper income limits for eligibility SNAP benefits. Strangely, only months after the USDA released a statement deferential to state flexibility in the administration of SNAP, the House Republican Farm Bill proposal inexplicably eliminates a popular state program and replaces it with a system in which families that have already been deemed in need of assistance will not be able to receive SNAP benefits.

For example, under broad-based categorical eligibility, people who are receiving other means tested government benefits like assistance or services funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program can also receive the help they need to afford nutritious food through SNAP, even if they might not otherwise qualify for the program under the stricter income eligibility guidelines. TANF is a program that is administered at the state level most often by the same agency that administers SNAP. Childcare for working parents, either paid in full or subsidized, is the second largest use of TANF funds. Under the categorical eligibility change, some parents who need help affording childcare in order to participate in the workforce will no longer be able to receive nutrition assistance to feed their children or themselves.

Ironically, households with at least one working parent earning some income—but not quite enough to get by—are exactly the type of families that Chairman Conaway and the Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee say they are “keep[ing] faith with by not only maintaining SNAP benefits but by offering a springboard out of poverty.” The reality is, instead of keeping their current SNAP benefits, these families will lose them altogether and will be forced to make impossible choices in an effort to put food on the table. A working parent may have to choose between spending money on childcare so that she can go to work or spending money on food instead and being unable to afford a safe place for her child while she is at work. Why does this version of the Farm Bill, so focused on employment, have the potential to punish working families?

Words matter, not only in the drafting of legislation, but also in the way our elected officials speak about people in poverty. This draft Farm Bill was crafted by politicians who perpetuate dangerous myths about those who rely on the social safety net, but the reality is that this bill, if enacted, will harm working American families. Defenders of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program know that most SNAP recipients who can work already do so, and making it more difficult for hard-working people to feed their families is unconscionable. We must be diligent in opposing partisan rhetoric and policy changes that hurt real people, or these little changes to legislative language will add up to devastating consequences for the most vulnerable among us.