Opinion: Keep eligibility rules for vital nutrition program

Dr. Marlene Herman, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, and Adele LaTourette
September 24, 2018

Read the full article as originally published on NorthernJersey.com

This month, a Conference Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate is negotiating the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which, until this year, has preserved a longstanding bipartisan tradition of balancing the priorities and needs of those who produce food with those who consume it. Importantly, the Farm Bill specifies the structure and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

House Speaker Paul Ryan recently proclaimed the Farm Bill to be “a main plank of our workforce development agenda.” Speaker Ryan candidly admits that he wants to turn SNAP into a job training program, a dangerous shift that undermines the purpose for which SNAP was designed: to provide basic food assistance to Americans who need help making ends meet. Based on the Speaker’s vision, the House narrowly passed a highly partisan bill. The Senate, however, advanced a bipartisan version that keeps eligibility rules for this vital program intact.

We strongly urge the Conference Committee to adopt the Senate version.

Forty-two million American men, women and children — including more than 750,000 in New Jersey — rely on SNAP to put food on the table each day, providing a modicum of stability for families who have fallen on hard times. SNAP is also one of our country’s most effective anti-poverty programs, lifting nearly 8.4 million people out of poverty, including 3.8 million children in 2015. In New Jersey, that includes nearly 300,000 children.

What is the impact of the House version? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that as many as 2 million Americans will lose their benefits nationwide. In New Jersey, an estimated 35,000 people would lose SNAP because of more restrictive eligibility requirements, while thousands more could lose desperately needed help because they can’t find a job or participate in a work program.

Let’s set the record straight: not only are the vast majority of SNAP recipients working, but current recipients must already meet work requirements to qualify for this food assistance. But Speaker Ryan wants to impose additional and harsher requirements, as well as increase the age limit of participants subject to these stricter requirements from age 49 to 59.

Simultaneously, the House also wants to redefine “dependents” as children age six and under, meaning unemployed parents of first graders will have to work at least 20 hours a week or lose their SNAP benefits. The nation’s 7-year-olds cannot fend for themselves after school, and no parent should have to choose between keeping their child safe or being able to feed them.

Work requirements alone have been proven to be ineffective at encouraging or supporting employment. One example among many: 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: just 5 percent of adults subjected to these new work requirements actually gained employment that year.

Placing stringent restrictions on a large swath of already struggling Americans without also expanding the meaningful supports they need — affordable childcare programs, access to transportation, purposeful education programs, a livable wage — will not actually help anyone find gainful employment. It will just mean they cannot afford to eat.

As the Conference Committee tries to 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 will hurt the people they purport to help. Instead we ask them to maintain program eligibility and benefit levels so that we, as a nation, can all thrive. Cuts to SNAP would prove devastating to millions of Americans and would drastically increase the problem of hunger in this country.

Dr. Marlene Herman is president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky is rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, NJ and treasurer of the Board of Directors at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Adele LaTourette is director of Hunger Free NJ.