A Republican Plan Could Worsen Rural America's Food Crisis

The draft Farm Bill in consideration in the House stands to exacerbate poverty, nutrition insecurity, and community collapse in the poorest areas of the country.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The quinquennial reapproval of the Farm Bill is back before Congress, only this time with a bit more drama than the past. The draft under consideration in the House will implement sweeping changes—including strengthened work requirements in the SNAP program—in nutrition-program eligibility.

The defenses of the proposed changes and the attacks against them both center on a set of racialized urban stereotypes, with conservatives invoking the ghosts of “welfare queens,” and liberals charging the new rule will merely produce more hungry, deserving people. But few of those arguments consider the plight of the rural areas where the Farm Bill most dominates public life. Residents of those areas are already facing rising nutrition pressures. With new restrictions on SNAP, they could see true hunger return.

Many of the arguments in favor of work requirements in the Farm Bill currently cycling through Congress operate from the assumption that SNAP is too generous, and that food is generally accessible. “I think the principles of food stamps and continual dependency is one that’s worth fighting for,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in April, in a statement of support for the Farm Bill. In his framing, the matter of work requirements in SNAP is one of individual dependency and industriousness, and not one of survival.

That framework clearly fails, though, in America’s rural areas, which rely on SNAP more heavily than cities, and where poor adults and children can suffer deep food instability and jobs are ever harder to come by. A map from the Food Research & Action Center illustrates the places in America with the greatest SNAP participation rates. With few exceptions, the counties with the highest percentage of SNAP recipients are rural, with a third or more of all the families in the poorest rural counties receiving assistance. In all, rural households are about 25 percent more likely to receive SNAP benefits than urban households are.

The increased reliance of rural households on SNAP means that, in many rural areas, SNAP keeps fragile nutrition networks afloat, and the program’s meager average daily benefit is all that stands between recipients and hunger. It may seem counterintuitive, given the common association of rural areas with agriculture, but rural areas are home to most of the country’s “food deserts,” where fresh produce and healthy options are often out of reach. Long drives for food and groceries are common, which means that time and transportation costs are appended to food costs in family budgets. The number of rural grocery stores is declining precipitously nationwide, tightening the food supply and increasing costs.

Poverty is also high in rural areas, where, according to the Census Bureau, 16 percent of all people are under the poverty line, versus 12 percent of people in urban areas. People in rural areas are older and more likely to be disabled than their urban counterparts as well. County maps of poverty and child poverty from the Census Bureau, as well as disability from the University of Montana, all look fairly similar to the map of SNAP-participation rates.

These factors conspire to make American food insecurity a uniquely rural problem. As Jessica Leigh Hester reported last year at CityLab, “of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, 76 percent are rural.” The food-bank network Feeding America defines food insecurity as the likelihood of a household to be unable to afford or find healthy food options. That likelihood is controlled by poverty, welfare benefits, and by the price and availability of food. Feeding America’s map of food security in American counties also produces a similar vista to views of SNAP participation and poverty. The most food-insecure counties—where a third or more of all families have to choose between food and other necessities—lie in a swath of rural counties in the South.

It’s in such places where any major changes in SNAP will have their biggest effects.

And there are several changes afoot. The draft of the Farm Bill that recently passed the House Agriculture Committee would reauthorize and expand the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINI), providing $275 million over the next five years to the grant program that helps extend SNAP and cash incentives to farmers’ markets and supports other ways to connect farmers and low-income consumers. It also would fund a $1.2 billion pilot program over 10 years to reimburse retailers and grocers that provide discounts on some fresh produce and milk, and increase funding for food-education programs.

All in all, as the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details in a recent report, those provisions might moderately enrich the average benefits package and enhance access to healthy foods for people who do receive SNAP.

But in the next stroke, the draft Farm Bill would seriously curtail the number of people who receive SNAP. It would institute a policy that would require able-bodied adults under the age of 60 without young children to prove monthly that they are working or participating in a work program for 20 total hours each week in order to qualify for assistance, with a month’s buffer between losing a job and sanctions. For the first strike, noncompliance could result in a loss of individual benefits for a year, with subsequent episodes of joblessness imposing a lockout of up to three years. In 2026, the work requirement would increase to 25 hours a week. These rules would deepen the existing work requirements in the program, which currently limit childless adults under 50 to three months of assistance in three years if they fail to work 20 hours a week, with a three-month buffer between job loss and sanction.

The effects of those requirements on the overall accessibility of SNAP would be dramatic. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that work requirements would cut costs by $9.2 billion dollars over 10 years, with the annual amount of savings spiking after the implementation of even more strict requirements in 2026. CBPP estimates that the total amount of savings from SNAP benefit cuts would be $23.1 billion over 10 years. Since the size of the average family benefit actually increases with this bill, all of the savings come from millions of people who won’t have access to them.

Of course, “savings” will accrue most heavily in places with the highest SNAP participation rates, and also with the greatest impediments to finding jobs. That means the true impact of work requirements will be felt doubly hard in rural areas. Employment has long been depressed in rural areas, and the share of employed adults who’d meet SNAP’s 20-hour-a-week work requirements has been markedly lower in rural areas than in urban ones for at least a decade. The Great Recession destabilized labor markets in cities, suburbs, and rural counties alike, but the rebound in job growth has occurred almost exclusively in cities and suburbs.

Additionally, of the jobs that still exist in rural areas, farm and related work is often seasonal, meaning even the hardest workers in rural areas might face the loss of their benefits, with less of a grace period. While federally-funded “work programs” or some other service activities could theoretically be an alternative to meeting the requirements, so far federal work-support programs have struggled to meet the needs of an increasingly isolated rural America, and could themselves impose significant burdens on people struggling to travel to participate—or those who don’t have the broadband internet access required to complete online programs or job applications.

In all, applying stricter work requirements to more (and older) Americans would create a unique drain on rural communities. Food insecurity is already entrenched in rural America, in spite of the high SNAP participation rates. Grocery stores offering fresh produce are disappearing, and the remaining grocery stores owe much of their survival to SNAP’s current caseload and meager benefits. Both obesity and malnutrition are most abundant in rural areas. In the poorest rural counties, somewhere between a third and half of all residents have to choose between eating and keeping the lights on. And a host of other related issues—aging, incarceration, the grip of the opioid crisis, and increasing instability of agriculture—keep the pressure on.

SNAP and its predecessors are remembered as the programs that eliminated the kinds of abject poverty and hunger that most believe simply are no longer possible in the United States. That perceived distance from the hookworms and bloated bellies of poverty in the developing world has allowed Republicans—who passed this Farm Bill through committee with no Democratic votes—the ability to credibly state that the current problem with food assistance is dependency. But, just like the hookworms, that kind of poverty still sticks around in some pockets of America, waiting for the safety net to thin.