Showdown on food stamps looms in Congress

Washington – Unless there’s a last-minute deal, there will be a huge showdown in Congress next week over the future of food stamps, a federal program that helps feed about 375,000 people in Connecticut.

House and Senate negotiators are racing to solidify a new farm bill that authorizes food stamps and other nutrition programs by Sept. 30, the day the current farm bill expires. To do so, they have to reconcile two differing farm bills each chamber has approved.

The House farm bill would dramatically increase the need to work, requiring almost anyone receiving food stamp, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, including single mothers with children above the age of 6 and all “able-bodied” adults under the age of 60, to work or participate in job training. The Senate-approved farm bill would not.

“We really have no idea what will happen,” said Ellen Vollinger, director of the food stamp program at the Food Research & Action Center. “And we’ve been keeping an eye on whether this farm bill will be good on SNAP or make people hungrier.”

Anti-hunger groups like Vollinger’s are lobbying the 47 U.S. House and nine Senate negotiators to drop the work requirements from a final farm bill, which also authorizes all federal commodities programs, crop insurance, and farm produce marketing programs.

On Thursday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, led an effort by 110 House Democrats to convince farm bill negotiators to leave the food stamp program intact.

“As you begin negotiations to finalize the 2018 Farm Bill, we strongly urge you to reject any changes to eligibility or work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” DeLauro and her fellow Democrats wrote in a letter to the negotiators. “The House bill’s approach to SNAP is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist. SNAP already has stringent work requirements, and, in reality, those on SNAP who are able to work currently do.”

But House Republican conservatives, including members of the Freedom Caucus, insist on making that change, saying it would encourage people to lift themselves out of poverty and save taxpayers money.

To become law, the final farm bill would have to be approved by both the U.S. House and Senate.

Senate Republicans in the past have joined Democrats in opposing cuts to food stamps, but Vollinger said at this point the situation is “fluid.”

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump admonished all 51 Senate Republicans – now 50 with the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain — to agree to vote on a final farm bill with work requirements for food stamps.

“When the House and Senate meet on the very important Farm Bill – we love our farmers – hopefully they will be able to leave the WORK REQUIREMENTS FOR FOOD STAMPS PROVISION that the House approved,” Trump tweeted. “Senate should go to 51 votes!”

About 375,000 individuals in about 217,000 households in Connecticut participate in the SNAP program, receiving an average individual benefit of $133 a month and an average household benefit of $226 a month in 2016.

Nationally, about 40 million Americans participate in the food stamp program.

‘Degradation of a bulwark against hunger’

Connecticut has a waiver from the requirement that “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or ABAWD’s, obtain at least 20 hours of work or worker training a week to qualify for benefits. It applies to those living in the 114 Connecticut towns with an average unemployment rate that is at least 20 percent above the national average. Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury are among the towns exempt from the work and job training requirements.

If the farm bill, as written, becomes law, Connecticut’s waiver and similar ones given to other states would be invalidated. Work requirements would also be imposed on parents of children who are older than six, while the definition of an abled bodied adult would change from a person between the ages of 18 and 49 who has no dependents and is not disabled to a person between the ages of 18 and 59 who is childless and is not disabled.

Fail to comply with the new rules even once, and a recipient would lose benefits for a full year. Two strikes, and the penalty increases to three years of lost benefits.

Democrats say the proposed changes to the food stamp program, which aim to save about $9 billion, are a mean-spirited degradation of a program that has been a bulwark of the social safety net for more than 50 years. But Democrats are in the minority in the farm bill’s conference committee and in the House and Senate.

The U.S. House farm bill would also end free school lunches for many Connecticut children.

It would limit “categorical eligibility” which extends eligibility for food stamps – and free school lunches – to those who qualify for other federal programs aimed at helping low-income people.

Connecticut allows children to qualify for food stamps and free school lunches if their families earn no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, $44,955 for a family of four. But under the bill, free school lunches would be capped for families of four who earned more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980.

That would affect individual families – and the entire student body at some schools  –because, under community eligibility rules, districts are permitted to feed all students free lunches and breakfasts if  40 percent or more of the children who attend the schools qualify for food stamps.

Shannon Yearwood, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said trimming the food stamp program would be “devastating” for many low income people and for children who would no longer qualify for free school meals.

She’s hoping the Senate bill, which wouldn’t touch SNAP and funds a new worker training program for its recipients, will prevail.

“It has a better chance at getting people back to work,” Yearwood said.

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