Commentary: Proposed SNAP rules distort idea of ‘helping’ the poor (Times Union)

Abby J. Leibman and Peter Cook
September 25, 2018

Read this article as originally published in Times Union.

As we write this, the Farm Bill Conference Committee of Congress is meeting to consider a new shape to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Nine senators and 47 House members sit on the committee, which is charged with negotiating the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill. From New York, Reps. Eliot Engel and Paul Tonko have been named to the committee. Under threat in this process is the historic bipartisan tradition of balancing the priorities and needs of those who produce food with those who consume it.

While the Senate approved a bipartisan version that keeps SNAP intact, the House narrowly passed a highly partisan bill that grossly alters SNAP by expanding onerous work requirements. Should the House proposal become law, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that as many as two million Americans will lose their benefits, including hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

With vigorous support from President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently proclaimed the Farm Bill to be “a main plank of our workforce development agenda.” Their expanded rules undermine the purpose of SNAP: to provide basic food assistance to those who need help making ends meet. Theirs is an ideological agenda: to make SNAP into a job training program. Ours is a faith-based agenda, which stresses that we treat each other with compassion and understanding, not harsh judgments about a person’s worthiness. Using hunger to “motivate”¬†people to work offends our understanding of grace and embraces the worst aspects of righteousness.

These sweeping new work requirements ignore the fact that most working-age SNAP recipients who can work are indeed working, and SNAP plays a vital role in supporting them when they are underemployed or between jobs. The substantial numbers of low-income people who have various barriers to employment would be left with neither earnings nor food assistance, unable to afford to eat.

While a good job can be a path out of poverty, we have evidence that work requirements are not effective at encouraging or supporting employment. For example, in 2016, West Virginia implemented work requirements for SNAP recipients in nine counties with the lowest unemployment rates. The results of this complex and costly program were that a mere 5 percent of people subjected to these new work requirements actually gained employment.

In our traditions, proclaiming one’s piety by professing care for the poor, while in actuality heaping more burdens on them, is disingenuous at best. This move to cut SNAP is not about the “dignity of work,” but a bid to manipulate religious piety to distract the public from seeing Congress’ fundamental lack of commitment to provide effective supports to help people enter and stay in the workforce to experience that dignity. Those supports include expansion of affordable childcare and after-school programs, a livable wage, access to transportation, affordable housing, and access to comprehensive health care with affordable deductibles.

The religious community has and will continue to step in much as possible to help, but is inherently limited in what it can do. The government needs to assume more responsibility, not less.

In the coming weeks, as Engel and Tonko on the conference committee negotiate the disparities between the two versions to craft a final bill, we call on them to follow the Senate’s wisdom and adopt its thoughtful, bipartisan Farm Bill. We urge them to reject ideological and indiscriminate work requirements that hurt the people they purport to help, and instead to maintain program eligibility and benefit levels so that we, as a nation, can all thrive.

Congress should then turn its attention to real supports that help and protect those who need a lift up.