SNAP remains a target for the GOP even as the farm bill deadline looms and food insecurity rises
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a flashpoint in Congress yet again as members work to renew the farm bill. And the debate comes in the midst of rising food insecurity across the U.S.
Republican lawmakers are eyeing more changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as part of the farm bill — setting the stage for a contentious fight in Congress.
That’s after lawmakers expanded work requirements for SNAP benefits earlier this summer as part of the debt ceiling agreement.
Several Democrats on the House Ag committee sent a letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, earlier this month, asking that GOP members not to seek further changes.
“... (P)laying partisan SNAP politics does nothing to address the needs of our farm and ranch families who depend on the other components of the farm bill, whether it’s the farm safety net, conservation, trade or other titles,” the letter stated.
The 2018 version of the farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30, and Congress will be in session for about three weeks when lawmakers convene after Labor Day.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, indicated earlier this month that Congress will have to temporarily extend the bill.
He’s also said that he expects the new omnibus package will be a bipartisan effort.
Food insecurity on the rise
More than 27 million people are living in households that haven’t had enough food in the last week, according to the latest data from U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. That’s up about 11% from the first two weeks of January.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 41 million people receive benefits through SNAP. Thomas Gremillion, the food policy director for the Consumer Federation of America, said low-income households will have to spend even more of their tight budgets on food if Congress makes further restrictions on the program.
“Cutting back on SNAP benefits, right at a time when food prices have really skyrocketed over the last couple of years,” he said, “it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The food assistance program is estimated to cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade. With the farm bill deadline looming, hunger relief advocates are not optimistic the bill will pass this year.
Joel Berg, CEO of the advocacy group Hunger Free America, said the House is so closely divided that he doesn’t think House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be able to push a bill moderate enough to get the support of the Senate or President Joe Biden.
“There will be pushes to cut benefits in the year-end spending bill,” he said. “But I hope the Democrats hold tough against it, having previously agreed to cuts in the debt ceiling bill."
In a recent media call Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called work requirements for SNAP recipients “a very positive thing,” that he said encourages people to work.
“As long as you have the ability to either have a job, go to school or do community service," he said. "It's the only way to move yourself out of poverty."
But the longtime member of the Senate Agriculture Committee also indicated the farm bill has to be a bipartisan effort.
“We’re not going to have a safety net for farmers if SNAP is not a part of the farm bill,” Grassley said.
SNAP has scuttled farm bills before
Debates surrounding SNAP have stalled farm bill negotiations in the past, which comes up for renewal every five years.
Although a fraction of Republican lawmakers may push for further work requirement expansion, both House and Senate Republicans representing agricultural regions are under pressure to pass a new farm bill before the end of the year when the majority of the programs begin to expire.
GOP lawmakers now expect 60 House Republicans, and likely more, to oppose a new farm bill this year, POLITICO reports.
Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Republican and Freedom Caucus member representing Georgia, has described SNAP as “one of the largest government handout programs” that “need to be curtailed.” SNAP is estimated to represent roughly 80% of total farm bill spending — up nearly 10% from the 2018 Farm Bill.
Democratic lawmakers who ended up supporting the debt ceiling negotiations, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, say the issue of work requirements has been put to bed.
“As far as I am concerned, the issue of work requirements is settled for this Congress,” said Stabenow in a statement.
Berg, of Hunger Free America, said a combination of pandemic-aid ending and an increase in food inflation has contributed to the rising rates of food insecurity. He said making cuts to SNAP will only exacerbate food insecurity and food pantries.
“We’re currently seeing real-life suffering,” he said. “And no one should believe that the charities can pick up the slack. They only have a small amount of resources compared to our very, very rich uncle named Sam.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.