Work Requirements in Farm Bill Are Off the Table

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

A supermarket displays stickers indicating they accept food stamps in West New York, New Jersey. 

This week, the House and Senate finally came to an agreement on the farm bill, the legislation that authorizes farm subsidies as well as nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.  While the previous bill had expired in September, lawmakers came to an impasse over whether to sharply limit food stamp eligibility. In a victory for low-income Americans, the final version contained no such provision. 

Passing the farm bill, generally a bipartisan endeavor, had hit roadblocks as House Republicans attempted to attach stringent work requirements to SNAP that would have threatened benefits for more than two million low-income people. The Senate version contained no such requirements.

The conference committee charged with resolving the two versions released the compromise bill on Monday—and work requirements were not included, in part thanks to the “blue wave” that stripped House Republicans of their bargaining power, forcing them to pass a compromise quickly before the balance of power shifts. The final bill will likely head to the House and Senate this week, and lawmakers may attempt to pass it quickly. 

The Prospect has reported how the House-proposed requirements would have expanded SNAP work requirements to include all adults under the age of 60 who don’t have children under the age of six. Such rules “reflect this idea that what keeps low-wage workers from finding steady work is their own motivation—rather than failures in the labor market and economy around them,” Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Prospect.

The compromise’s exclusion of work requirements “ensure[s] that millions of struggling families and individuals will continue to be able to count on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help put food on the table,” Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a statement.

However, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hinted that his department may still seek to limit eligibility. In a statement, Perdue grumbled that “we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients.” And as such, the USDA may be able to further limit SNAP access for low-income people by barring states from using waivers to limit work requirements that SNAP already has in place. The current work rules affect adults who don’t have children, but cities and states can request waivers of the 20-hour-per-week requirement if it’s difficult for SNAP recipients to get jobs—for example, if the area has a high unemployment rate. 

According to Politico, Perdue called chair of the Republican Study Committee and Republican Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina and promised to curb state work requirement waivers if the bill is passed.

Perdue had already expressed interest in removing the ability of states to waive those rules, saying earlier this year, “Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency. Past decisions may have been the easy short-term choice, but USDA policies must change if they contribute to a long-term failure for many SNAP participants and their families.”

As for now, we can be assured that SNAP cuts won’t further infringe on low-income families’ ability to put groceries on the table.

But we can also be assured of this administration’s love affair with work requirements. Don’t be surprised if Secretary Perdue announces further SNAP restrictions for which he doesn’t need congressional approval, likely increasing hunger in an effort to promote “self-sufficiency.”

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