The Farm Bill’s Threat to Food Security

The major agricultural and welfare proposal currently before a conference committee would reduce poor Americans’ access to nutrition, even as the USDA acknowledges its food-stamp program has been instrumental in fighting hunger.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order next to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a roundtable discussion with farmers at the White House in April 2017. Trump and Perdue favor stronger work requirements for food-stamp recipients. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Hunger still exists in America, and the national food-stamp program is one of the policy tools Americans have for fixing the problem. Those two facts aren’t in debate. In its annual report on household food security, released Wednesday, the United States Department of Agriculture confirmed these conclusions. On a hopeful note, the report finds that fewer than 12 percent of all households in the country face food insecurity, the lowest share since the height of the Great Recession in 2011. The report also finds that participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food-stamp program, is highest in households that are food insecure. The problem is still there, but it appears there are tools to combat it.

Those tools, however, might become suddenly less potent in the near future. In the Farm Bill passed by the House and currently under debate in a conference committee, there are major proposed changes to SNAP that would substantially diminish its ability to fight hunger. In particular, a new analysis of the House’s proposal finds that tightened restrictions to SNAP eligibility would reduce the ranks of SNAP recipients by some 2 million people. This, along with other proposed changes to the program, could neutralize the ability of federal programs to help fight hunger, just after the country celebrated advances in food security.

SNAP is always the most contentious part of the Farm Bill, which must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. About 80 percent of the bill’s total spending is wrapped up in the nutrition title, making it a ripe target for politicians looking to dramatically cut federal spending while scoring political points. This year is no different; the House’s version of the bill includes stricter eligibility and work requirements, while the Senate’s version opts not to impose any additional restrictions. In the House’s version—the stricter, more conservative version favored by President Donald Trump—GOP leadership wants to implement strict work requirements, as well as make some changes to eligibility. The House version would allow higher income limits for SNAP, but would simultaneously eliminate a rule that currently allows states to use somewhat looser asset-eligibility guidelines in place of SNAP’s own guidelines. The rule change alone would reduce the number of enrolled families by 10 percent.

A new simulation from Mathematica and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that the House’s changes to countable assets and categorical eligibility would decrease the ranks of SNAP recipients by 2 million households. The analysis concludes that the number of households that would be newly eligible for SNAP with the House’s proposed income increases would be significantly offset by the millions of families who would suddenly lose eligibility. And these projected reductions don’t yet include the numbers of households that might soon be rejected if they don’t meet the accompanying work requirements in the House draft.

In a statement accompanying the simulation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program officer Jasmine Hall Ratliff said that “the findings of this impact assessment demonstrate that those who rely on SNAP—two-thirds of whom are children, older adults, and people with disabilities—should have access to benefits without undue barriers to eligibility, enrollment, or utilization.” The report, however, finds that those would be precisely the groups affected by the House’s new policy. Thirty-four percent of the households that will lose eligibility include elderly beneficiaries, while just under a quarter include children, and 11 percent include a person living with a disability. Just more than half the families that would suddenly find themselves without food-stamp benefits live in poverty.

“Almost all benefits for households that qualify for [the categorical-eligibility option] go to working families, and restricting this state option would make it harder for families to put food on the table and get back on their feet,” said Brynne Keith-Jennings, a senior research analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In the lead-up to the first day of negotiations on the bill, Representative Mike Conaway, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said in the face of Senate pressure that he would be willing to make “significant compromises” on SNAP requirements, though several committee Republicans, including Pennsylvania’s Glenn Thompson, indicated that they would continue to push the House bill’s strict eligibility restrictions. Senate leaders have said a bill with stricter eligibility requirements won’t pass their chamber.

The idea of tightening categorical-eligibility requirements for SNAP is a mainstay of conservative attempts at cutting federal spending on the program. In 2012, the Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee attempted to cut SNAP spending by $16 billion, mostly by tightening categorical-eligibility requirements. The Senate resisted, and disagreements over SNAP helped stall negotiations on the entire Farm Bill, forcing Congress to pass a short-term extension rather than a full multiyear bill. A year later, a last-minute work-requirements amendment tanked the House’s hope of passing a bipartisan bill. A later attempt by Republicans in the chamber to completely separate the nutrition title from the Farm Bill derailed further progress. Congress didn’t pass a final Senate-favored version of the four-year Farm Bill—which cut just $8 billion from SNAP and instituted bipartisan pilot work-requirement programs—until 2014.

It looks like more of the same drama is afoot in 2018. The Senate’s reluctance to pass drastic changes has put it in opposition to the White House, which has favored major changes to eligibility and the necessity of work requirements. President Trump has been characteristically vocal on Twitter, directing the Senate on Wednesday to “Pass the Farm Bill with SNAP work requirements!” Vice President Mike Pence also tweeted on Wednesday morning that Congress must “include work requirements for SNAP recipients to restore the dignity of work.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has called the work requirements “worth fighting for,” and has been the chief architect in the Trump administration of several ideas that would constrict food assistance, reduce spending, and push recipients into jobs.

But the problem with that approach is that most SNAP recipients work, and the program isn’t expensive. A growing economy and expanding employment are already doing the jobs Trump and Perdue claim are necessary. Even without the tightened restrictions in the House Farm Bill, a burgeoning economy, lower unemployment rates, and the reimplementation of work requirements that were waived for certain states during the recession have caused SNAP enrollment over the past three years to fall by 3 million people. The Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year baseline-spending projections in 2014 were about $82 billion higher than they are now.

That’s the way the program works, in theory and in practice. Food stamps and all other means-tested welfare programs expand and contract to suit the economic times, growing to fit a needy population when necessary. That function has been critical in fighting food insecurity, and in pushing the country closer to a state where everyone is adequately nourished. But with the House GOP and the White House pushing rules potentially expelling 2 million households from the ranks of those eligible for food stamps, future progress is uncertain, and America’s food security will be an open question even with a booming economy.