So I Hear the Farm Bill Is Bad…But How Bad Is It?

Liza Lieberman
April 16, 2018

Last week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (TX-11) released the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill. It represents a fundamental and cruel shift in how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is administered to Americans who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. If enacted, this bill would cause a spike in food insecurity in this country.

While some argue these changes aim to move people to “self-sufficiency,” we know that the real goal is to shrink the number of Americans enrolled in federal safety net programs. This is an ideologically driven strategy that favors reducing government spending to help poor Americans, with no regard to the facts and circumstances that render people in desperate need of help. In the shadow of the largest tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations in American history, it is particularly galling to see these proposed cuts to programs that only help poor people keep their heads above water.

SNAP is the nation’s frontline defense against hunger. These severe changes are nothing short of an attack on broad swaths of Americans, including older adults, single mothers, children, military families, people in rural communities and the working poor.

The release of the Farm Bill draft comes after a slew of Republican threats to the safety net, including President Trump’s Executive Order directing federal agencies to increase work requirements for people accessing SNAP and Medicaid, as well as reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin requiring drug testing of certain SNAP applicants—a move that shames applicants, imposes burdensome administrative costs, and was ruled unconstitutional for other public benefit programs. These actions will affect some two million Americans.

Unprecedented Attacks on Women and Their Children

New guidelines redefine “dependents” as children age six and below. This means parents with children older than age six would be subject to work requirements in order to receive SNAP benefits. Nearly 66% of children receiving SNAP live in single-parent households. Women make up more than 80% of single parents in the United States, so it should come as no surprise that households headed by women are disproportionately represented among those who receive SNAP benefits.

Nowhere does this draft of the Farm Bill provide for the untold millions of dollars needed to ensure that all working mothers can access affordable quality childcare—the single most vital need for any mother to reenter the labor force.

No mother should have to choose between having her children go hungry or leaving them alone so she can go to work.

A “Fix” For Military Families that Falls Far Short

A glitch in existing law prevents far too many low-income military families from qualifying for SNAP. It’s a technical error that has a simple fix: to exclude a service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) from counting as income when determining eligibility for federal nutrition assistance benefits. Instead, Chairman Conaway’s draft Farm Bill rejects this existing bipartisan solution and offers instead a confusing proposal to exclude only the first $500 of a service member’s BAH from counting as income for SNAP eligibility determination. This arbitrary proposal adds an additional layer of complication and falls far short of solving the problem.

Work Requirements That Won’t Help Anyone Work

In many ways, the House Republicans’ Farm Bill draft offers solutions in search of a problem. Currently, SNAP recipients between 18-49 years old must work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a state administered employment and training (E&T) program. This Farm Bill would expand these work requirements to include people between 50 and 59 years of age, and add new draconian penalties for those falling short of the work requirement.

The millions of Americans who stand to be impacted by these potential changes are not a monolithic community—they are veterans who served our country, hard workers who live in economically depressed communities, and parents who have been laid off from stable manufacturing jobs due to plant closures. Penalizing them for being unemployed by cutting their benefits will not help them overcome the barriers they face in finding new jobs.

New Burdens for Older Americans

Older Americans face a unique set of challenges reentering the workforce, which will be exacerbated if this Farm Bill becomes law. Between age discrimination and scarcity of effective training programs, getting a new job is more difficult and takes longer for older Americans. Research shows the average length of unemployment among job seekers 55 and older was over 54 weeks, five months longer than their younger counterparts.

Rural America Will Be Hard Hit

15% of rural households struggle with food insecurity. Rural communities face significant challenges that increase their susceptibility to hunger, including insufficient infrastructure or transportation options, fewer well-paid or full-time work opportunities and limited sources of nutritious food.

While President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue claim to be helping rural America, it remains unclear how deep cuts to SNAP will help these communities deal with these very real challenges.

SNAP Is Not a Jobs Program

Chairman Conaway and the Trump Administration want to reclassify SNAP and other public benefits as workforce development programs, as if having a job is a singular panacea for all the problems poor people face.

Under this bill, unemployed SNAP applicants would have 30 days to find a job or enter a work training program—or be dropped from the program. Conaway said those who can’t meet the requirements could “self-select” to opt out.

The implication of this new policy is that unemployed SNAP recipients actively refuse to work. The reality, however, couldn’t be farther from their recrimination. While we can all agree that work is essential, placing more stringent restrictions on struggling Americans without also expanding affordable childcare programs, access to college education, and other meaningful support systems will not help anyone find gainful employment.

Conflating safety net programs with workforce development programs undermines the long agreed-upon purposes for which these programs were designed.

So, What’s Next?

The Farm Bill draft goes before the full House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, April 18 for a “mark-up,” which is an open hearing for the full committee to discuss the specifics of the bill and offer amendments before voting on whether to send it to the House floor. As of now, it is unclear whether the bill will make it out of Committee because of the highly partisan proposals related to SNAP. But if the Committee can come to majority agreement on the details of the bill, they bring it to the House floor for further discussion and eventually a full House vote.

Simultaneously, the Senate Agriculture Committee is drafting its own version of the Farm Bill. Reports suggest theirs is a more bipartisan process with no desire by folks on either side of the aisle to make sweeping changes to SNAP. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) has said he intends to move the bill out of committee and to the Senate floor later this spring.

MAZON once again calls on legislators to pass a Farm Bill that protects against hunger by strengthening SNAP and other federal nutrition assistance programs—not one that adds to the problem. We will continue to oppose any policies that hurt single mothers, children, military families, older Americans, rural communities and working people.

In the coming days, we’ll delve into the details of these historic cuts to the nutrition safety net. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.