Next week, the House of Representatives will vote on the 2018 farm bill, a massive $867 billion piece of legislation that includes stricter work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.
The change to the SNAP program is part of President Donald Trump's "welfare to work" agenda and broader Republican plans to cut government spending and reform the social safety net.
"The concept is really simple," Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a Thursday news conference. "If you are capable of work, you should work to get benefits."
According to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture, the SNAP program provides food assistance to 40.7 million Americans. The vast majority of beneficiaries, about two-thirds, are senior citizens, children, disabled persons. Millions of other recipients work and receive the benefits to supplement their low wages.
In testimony to Congress this week, the head of the Food and Nutrition Service, Brandon Lipps said 15 million able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 currently receive food stamps. He estimated more than nine million of those individuals are not working.
"We can and we should do better," Lipps told lawmakers. "Nutrition assistance must support those facing hard times by providing them the food they need while helping those who are able to move beyond government assistance to independence."
Work requirements for federal benefits are nothing new. The current work requirements for food stamp recipients have been in place since welfare reform 1996. Opponents of the stricter requirements worry low-income Americans will lose access to food assistance when they most need it.
"It's harmful, it's unworkable and it's untested," said Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Dean said the House proposal will make SNAP's existing work requirements even more difficult to fulfill. "And that will result in a loss in food assistance to many low-income individuals, including workers," she stated.
Under current law, non-disabled, working-age individuals (18 to 59-years-old) who do not have children under the age of 6, are required to register to work in their state. The state then determines who among the registered will be subject to the requirement to work or engage in job training 20 hours per week. Unless they are given a waiver, a SNAP recipient has three months to meet the work requirement. If they do not, they are ineligible for food stamps for the next three years.
The House proposal essentially shifts focus from food assistance to employment assistance.
The plan dramatically expands state-run job training programs by $1 billion per year. It also mandates all able-bodied, working-age individuals to work or engage in employment-related activities 20 hours per week through 2025 and 25 hours per week beginning in 2026. Individuals have one month, rather than three, to verify participation in those activities or face penalties, including loss of benefits. The House plan also and limits states' ability to waive the able-bodied work requirement.
"As long as you're working if you're still under the [income] caps we’re going to help you," House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference Tuesday.
Administrators and state-level caseworkers will be increasingly responsible for verifying individuals are working, involved in a supervised job search, in training or enrolled in an education program, Conaway explained. The states will have two years to come up with a plan.
Over ten years, it would cut $20 billion in nutrition assistance and cut SNAP participation by approximately 1 million people over the same period, according to an analysis by Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Robert Doar is an AEI senior fellow in poverty studies and ran New York City's SNAP program during the Great Recession. He believes the focus on job creation is a much-needed reform for the food assistance program.
"This a significant step forward in making the food stamp program engage people who could work and want to work in activities that will lead them to employment, higher earnings and out of poverty," he said.
Part of that engagement includes limiting states' ability to waive the work requirement for people who are eligible and capable.
When unemployment skyrocketed above 10 percent during the Great Recession, every state became eligible for a waiver. Millions of low-income Americans were able to receive food assistance, despite being able and willing to work.
Participation and government cost of SNAP peaked in 2013 as the country was still recovering from the recession. More than 47 million people were receiving food stamps at a cost of $79.8 billion. Each year since, the cost and the number of participants has decreased.
Doar is concerned that many states kept the work requirement waiver in place even after the economy grew stronger. "It's a little disturbing," he said. "This is the one requirement we have in the program and here we are with unemployment at less than 4 percent and the requirement can still be waived."
Currently, there are 36 states that have waived the able-bodied work requirement for individuals in high unemployment areas, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The number of food stamp recipients has not declined as rapidly after the Great Recession, according to Dean, because "the program is doing a good job of reaching eligible people."
Before the recession, approximately 75 percent of eligible recipients were getting food stamps, according to CBPP analysis. Now approximately 83 percent of those people are receiving the benefits, and many of the recipients are working or meet other qualifications.
Reforming America's social safety net has been on President Trump's agenda since taking office. In his address to Congress earlier this year he addressed welfare reform under the banner of "welfare to work," "dependence to independence."
On Tuesday, Trump unilaterally took a step toward welfare reform, signing an executive order calling on all federal agencies to enforce existing work requirements for public housing, health care, food assistance and other benefits. The agencies will also be required to review any exemptions to those work requirements.
Based on how the fight over SNAP work requirements is shaping up in Congress, food stamp reform may only come from executive action.
The traditionally bipartisan farm bill was voted out of committee on a strictly partisan vote last month, due to an "ideological fight" over the SNAP work requirement, according to the committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
On Thursday, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., objected to what he called the "deep cuts" to SNAP. "We have people who are hungry back home," he told Circa. "The idea that we should require them to fend for themselves when we're the richest country on the planet is something I take offense to."
The bill is expected to clear the House next week, but the work requirement will not be taken up in the Senate, according to Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Robert, R-Ks., who pledged to produce a bipartisan farm bill.
President Trump has fought for the SNAP reform and reportedly threatened to veto a farm bill that did not include the tougher work requirements. Lawmakers have since denied the rumors.