WASHINGTON — Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, on April 12 introduced the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), his proposed draft of the new farm bill. Contentious provisions in the legislation relating to expanded work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients precluded the introduction of a bipartisan farm bill. Mr. Conaway scheduled a bill mark-up for April 18. With Democratic members of the committee opposed to the legislation as written, the bill may be moved to the full House on a party-line vote. 

Continuity was at the core of farm program proposals contained in H.R. 2. Changes to those programs were few and mostly noncontroversial.

But nutrition programs account for about 80% of the spending authorized under the farm bill, and here fundamental differences separated members of the two political parties. Republican committee members voiced concern that without more stringent work requirements, SNAP may encourage individuals who should be working or seeking training to prepare them for work to instead become dependent on the government benefits. Democrats pointed to current work requirements under SNAP and held that more onerous requirements would deprive otherwise needy individuals from receiving the assistance they need to feed themselves and their families.

Mr. Conaway, in introducing H.R. 2, acknowledged that SNAP, which would be reauthorized in the farm bill, was “essential to helping many Americans feed themselves and their families.” He added, “The farm bill also keeps faith with these families by not only maintaining SNAP benefits but by offering SNAP beneficiaries a springboard out of poverty to a good paying job, and opportunity for a better way of life for themselves and their families.”

To that end, Mr. Conaway’s bill proposed an overhaul of current work requirements for certain individuals to receive SNAP benefits while increasing spending on state job training programs.

Current law stipulates that able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) between the ages of 18 and 49 may only receive SNAP benefits for three months in three years unless they work 80 hours per month, participate in qualifying education and training activities for 80 hours per month, or comply with a workfare program.

H.R. 2 would expand the population subject to work requirements to include able-bodied persons between the ages of 50 and 59 and to caretakers of children over the age of six years.

H.R. 2 would require individuals in the expanded ABAWD category to work or be enrolled in a job-training program for at least 20 hours per week beginning in fiscal year 2021. The minimum hours for working or training would increase to 25 hours per week in fiscal year 2025. Those who fail to comply with those requirements could become ineligible for SNAP benefits for 12 months. Continued failure to meet the requirements could result in rendering an individual ineligible for SNAP benefits for three years.

Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member of the agriculture committee, said, “It makes no sense to put the farmers and rural communities who rely on the farm bill’s safety net programs at risk in pursuit of partisan ideology on SNAP. Between record-low farm incomes, and the escalating threat of a trade war and other market disruptions, farmers have enough to worry about. Breaking up the long-standing, bipartisan, urban-rural farm bill alliance is a dangerous and unproductive step that will only sow division and jeopardize both this and future farm bills.”

Mr. Peterson added H.R. 2 “attempts to change SNAP from a feeding program to a work program. The bill rejects the testimony of 89 witnesses, and instead includes ideological language that will force people off of SNAP to pay for massive state bureaucracies that won’t work and are a waste of money. This legislation is based on false perceptions and ignores reality.”

Mr. Peterson was referring to the $1 billion the bill would earmark for expanding state job-training programs.

The Conaway bill was endorsed by the Republican leadership in the House. Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said, “The agriculture committee is releasing a new farm bill. It includes reforms to help people on the SNAP program who are able to find work, and start taking those steps toward making a good living. In states like Kansas and Maine, we have seen that an approach combining work requirements with work supports — like apprenticeships and skills training — has phenomenal success. This is going to help get more Americans out of poverty, and it’s going to help more Americans get into the workforce, while maintaining support for those in need.”

Mark Knott, president of Feeding America, said the nation’s food banks and pantries were concerned about the damage the proposed SNAP provisions of the farm bill legislation could do in the communities they serve.

“The inescapable reality is that SNAP cuts would have a boat-swamping effect on our network, and changes of this magnitude to an efficient and sound program would set the fight against hunger back in communities across our country,” Mr. Knott said.

Mr. Knott pointed out that the 2014 farm bill committed $200 million to fund 10 substantial state demonstration projects to find what aids jobless SNAP participants in gaining employment.

“These demonstrations are well underway,” he said.

But rather than await the results, the proposal introduced today mandates that all states institute untested, sweeping changes.

“This legislation’s SNAP provisions are held out as a means of helping unemployed individuals find jobs and obtain independence,” Mr. Knott continued. “Regrettably, making it harder for vulnerable members of our community to access food assistance does not set them on a path to self-sufficiency and success; rather it knocks them back down and makes it harder for them to work toward a better future.”