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View related content: Poverty Studies
The Senate Agriculture Committee has missed a great opportunity to fight poverty and encourage work.
In contrast with House Republicans, whose proposed farm bill brought a much needed focus on employment to our nation’s food stamps program, the drafters of the Senate bill have completely passed on work requirements in favor of an approach that insists that the status quo is fine.
The status quo is not fine. Our economy is hot, making this a prime opportunity to get non-working Americans into employment and earnings. Healthy adults who could be working are not, while SNAP — a program that is supposed to help people escape poverty — is responding by effectively saying: Helping you get a job is not our job.
While some of the language in the House bill was vague, it deserves credit for aiming to minimize inappropriate exemptions to established work requirements in SNAP. It would do so by establishing an activity requirement for all healthy SNAP recipients ages 18 to 59 not taking care of a young child. This requirement was aimed at increasing employment, not reducing recipients; it even mandated that states only sanction recipients for not complying with the requirement if they had turned down an available activity. By limiting geographic waivers, investing heavily in training programs, and only lightly sanctioning noncompliance, it paved the way for SNAP to reorient its recipients toward work.
Not so in the Senate bill. It fails to modify existing waiver-eligibility thresholds, allowing states to continue to skirt the nominal work requirements that do currently exist. It does not change the current sanctions for noncompliance. Unlike the House bill, it does not mandate an asset limit for SNAP eligibility, which would encourage among SNAP families financial responsibility, earning, and saving. And it maintains the old system that allows broad-based categorical eligibility, which allows states to make eligible for the program households with assets that should place them beyond SNAP’s reach — though benefits should go to those who need them most, not those who game the system best.
All that is bad, and constitutes a missed opportunity. But it gets worse when you consider the missing action on child support enforcement.
The House bill contained a provision that would require states to help custodial and non-custodial parents enter into formal agreements establishing child support orders before receiving SNAP benefits by requiring that custodial parents seeking SNAP cooperate in establishing child support orders. Many poor single-parent families (who receive SNAP benefits) find their financial situation worsened by a lack of child support payments from the absent parent; not even half of poor single-parent families have formal child support agreements in place. SNAP has the reach and ability to help rectify this.
Withholding SNAP benefits from parents refusing to establish child support agreements that would benefit poor families is appropriate. And with nearly two-thirds of SNAP-recipient children living in single-parent households, SNAP has a unique ability to fight poverty beyond its success in fighting hunger. Unfortunately, the Senate Agriculture Committee discarded that welcome reform from the House bill.
There is still time to reinstate the reforms of the House bill, and the Senate would be wise to do so (though it seems very unlikely to happen). Unless that happens, the Senate farm bill will be all about missed opportunities on work and family: no effort to help poor recipients find employment, and no effort to help poor single mothers get the support they need and deserve from non-resident fathers.
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