WASHINGTON — Republicans controlling the House are proposing sweeping new work mandates on the nation's more than 40 million food stamp recipients as they kick off debate on a politically-freighted election-year overhaul of the government's food and farm programs.
Legislation released Thursday would require able-bodied adults aged 18-59 to work or participate in job training for 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamp benefits that average about $450 a month for a family of four.
The measure, which ignored recommendations outlined in President Donald Trump's 2019 budget proposal, has already sparked opposition from Democrats, whose support is generally needed to pass the measure through Congress. They say the tougher work requirements would drive millions of people off of the program.
The measure also would renew the government's safety net for producers as farm country endures a downturn and as President Donald Trump's tough talk on tariffs threatens a trade war that could depress prices for farm commodities such as soybeans.
The legislation has traditionally been bipartisan, blending support from urban Democrats supporting nutrition programs with farm state lawmakers supporting crop insurance, farm credit, and land conservation.
The latest proposal will again test this longstanding marriage of urban and rural lawmakers. Efforts to cut food stamps prolonged the most recent farm bill debate before GOP leaders largely gave up on the proposals when passing the current farm law four years ago.
The House Agriculture Committee prefers to operate on a bipartisan basis, but Democrats upset over the new food stamp proposals have broken off talks. Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, says the panel will vote on the bill next week.
"We believe breaking this poverty cycle is very important," Conaway said.
The latest proposal on food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would require states to impose stricter uniform work requirements for SNAP recipients between 18 and 59.
Currently, adults 18-59 are required to work part-time or agree to accept a job if they're offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month. Under the new bill, that requirement would be expanded to apply to all work-capable adults, mandating that they either work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children under the age of six, or people with disabilities.
The new work requirements would take effect in 2021, and increase to 25 hours per week in 2026. Each new SNAP recipient would have one month to comply with the rule.
The measure also limits circumstances under which families who qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP.
The bill earmarks $1 billion to expand work training programs.
Conaway also announced plans to create a national database of SNAP recipients in an effort to prevent people from signing up for the program in multiple states, though he could not say whether such fraud is widespread.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, criticized the bill for "breaking up the long-standing, bipartisan, urban-rural farm bill alliance," calling it "a dangerous and unproductive step that will only sow division and jeopardize both this and future farm bills."
"This bill attempts to change SNAP from a feeding program to a work program," Peterson said. "This legislation is based on false perceptions and ignores reality."
Debate on the bill begins as Republicans are seeking to send a message that they are paying attention to the nation's spiraling deficits and addressing benefits programs whose budgets mostly operate on autopilot. But Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all off the table, leaving food stamps as the most obvious target.
"It includes reforms to help people on the SNAP program who are able to work find work, and start taking those steps toward making a good living," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "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."
Democrats say that the new work mandate would be too onerous for recipients, particularly parents, and that many people would simply give up their relatively modest benefits rather than participate in job-training programs.
The Senate, as is usually the case, is taking a bipartisan approach. That's the only way to get the measure through under that chamber's rules
"It isn't the best possible bill; it's the best bill possible," said Sen. Pat Robert, R-Kan. "Time, because of this trade mess, is heavy upon us. The farmers desperately need certainty and predictability. The farm bill can give them that. So we're working very hard to get this done as soon as we can."