For a long time, we’ve kept a watchful eye on the gathering storm of “welfare reform.” We’re disappointed to say that the storm has hit, and it has the potential to accelerate hunger in America like we haven’t seen in more than 25 years, with a particularly harmful impact on older Americans.
U.S. Representative Mike Conaway (TX-11), the GOP chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, recently released the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—also known as the Farm Bill—with the full endorsement of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (WI-1), whose “A Better Way” agenda threatens to shred the social safety net. The Ryan-Conaway Farm Bill plays politics with the lives of 41 million food insecure Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Among many other harmful proposals, this bill would increase the upper age limit for those who are subject to work requirements from 49 to 59. This is a category of people who face significant barriers to finding employment, and this change would make it much more difficult for them to put food on the table. Research shows that the average length of unemployment among job seekers 55 and older is over 54 weeks, five months longer than their younger counterparts. As of 2016, over 40% of SNAP households—8.7 million—had at least one adult age 50 or older, 4 million of whom will become newly subjected to work requirements. That’s millions of Americans at risk of losing the nutrition benefits they need to stay healthy, support local grocery stores, and keep roofs over their heads.
While no one thinks of people between the ages of 50-59 as seniors, the new work requirements guarantee that many of these older Americans will be sick on arrival by the time they can qualify for SNAP again at 60 and reach retirement at 65. We know that 80% of Americans between the ages of 55-64 have a preexisting condition and over one third have multiple chronic conditions. Extensive research demonstrates that older Americans who participate in SNAP have lower rates of admission to hospitals and senior homes, as well as reduced incidence of having to choose between life-saving medication and having enough to eat. By ensuring access to nutritious food among 50-59 year-olds, SNAP keeps our population healthier. The Ryan-Conaway Bill would make things worse—for them and for us all.
The assault on SNAP isn’t taking place in a vacuum. The same people behind the Ryan-Conaway Bill are also supporting efforts to allow states to implement work requirements to qualify for Medicaid up to age 65 and for those in public housing. The generation of adults targeted by these “reforms” from current leadership already face significant challenges: a changing economy with automation eliminating jobs and rapidly-shifting technology that realigns what job skills are in demand; failure to fully recover the previous value of retirement savings from the Great Recession; rising cost of living when wages haven’t kept up; the threat of shrinking social safety net programs; discrimination in the form of ageism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia; and a “silver tsunami” of 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every day through 2025.
The Ryan-Conaway Farm Bill and the Republican “welfare reform” platform claim to be grounded by the premise of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But these misguided efforts will have the opposite effect in the long term. Cuts today to effective programs to realize savings will only drive greater numbers of older Americans into poverty, resulting in significant long-term public costs. The damage caused by malnutrition from lost SNAP benefits could result in exorbitant health care costs to treat preventable diet-related chronic conditions, and in millions of older Americans drawing upon on meager Social Security benefits to pay off higher medical bills, especially since Medicare only covers 80% of medical costs and fails to cover long-term healthcare at all.
The Ryan-Conaway Farm Bill undermines SNAP, meaning that we’ll have sicker and poorer Americans as they reach retirement age. And those people are going to need our help. Whether we help them put food on the table today or cover their ongoing medical costs, we need to be wise about how we invest our tax dollars. Surely we all deserve better.