A House Republican plan to set stricter work rules for food stamp recipients would disproportionately affect low-income residents in states that supported Donald Trump for president and may imperil passage of farm legislation.
The work requirements are a priority for the president and are "something he will be encouraging," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Wednesday.
The House may take up the farm bill containing the tougher work requirements next week. Yet the GOP is divided about how far the rules should go as the party campaigns to keep its majorities in the House and Senate in November’s elections.
Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus want even stricter guidelines. The Senate, which needs to approve its own plan before negotiating with the House on a final package, is less likely to sign off on new work requirements.
The farm bill reauthorizes all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly called food stamps. The plan sent to the House floor by the Agriculture Committee on a party-line vote last month would shift some money spent on benefits to workforce training.
House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, and his Senate counterpart, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, said Wednesday they would meet with Trump on Thursday. Conaway said he continues to seek support for his committee’s measure.
Republicans say the requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats oppose those provisions because they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork requirements.
A Bloomberg analysis shows that 12.9 percent of residents of states that backed Trump in 2016 used food stamps in February, the most recent month for which data are available, compared with 11.4 percent in states won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. That amounts to 23.8 million people in Trump states compared with 16.2 million in Clinton territory.
Residents of non-metropolitan counties, which gave 66 percent of their votes to Trump in 2016, are 18 percent more likely to participate in the food-stamp program than city-dwellers, according to a study by the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which backs greater funding for anti-poverty programs in rural areas.
"One in four rural children lives in poverty," said Dee Davis, the organization’s president. "The president’s response is to withhold food."
The House measure would raise from 49 to 59 the age at which able-bodied adults would be required to work or participate in a training program for 20 hours a week. The plan also adds work requirements for households that include children 6 and older. Recipients between ages 18 and 59 with children above age 6 who don’t comply with the work requirement would lose an annual benefit of about $1,800 on average by 2028, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
About 40 million Americans were using food stamps in February, down 5.3 percent from the previous year and the lowest since March 2010, according to the USDA.
Tightened work rules have support among social and fiscal conservatives. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said tight work-eligibility rules are necessary to discourage a "lifestyle" of welfare dependence.
Parke Wilde, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, said criticizing the SNAP program is a way to signal disapproval of social-welfare initiatives. Even if those recipients are Trump voters, "there’s political mileage in just criticizing SNAP," he said. "There’s concern about people loafing while on government assistance."
Farm bills, which also include agricultural subsidies, traditionally are passed by a coalition of rural Republicans and welfare-supporting Democrats, meaning Trump’s position may make it more difficult for any bill to pass Congress, Wilde said.
"Support for farm programs and nutrition assistance requires a little bit of cross-sector dialogue," he said. "It isn’t well-served by appealing to one group of food-stamp haters."
Trump’s support for work rules could be a "huge help" to gaining passage in the House, especially among lawmakers worried about farm subsidy spending, said Conaway. But it may complicate approval of any farm bill in the Senate, which would need to reconcile its plan with a House version to craft a final law for the president to sign.
Roberts has yet to propose a Senate farm bill and said Wednesday that he’ll seek bipartisan support for the measure.
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