At a rally last week in Wichita, Kansas, as Vice President Mike Pence kicked off a swing of campaign appearances across the Midwest, he unveiled a new GOP talking point. “We’re gonna stand firm and get a farm bill that includes work requirements for people—able-bodied Americans—on food stamps so we get people back into the workforce and back enjoying the dignity of work,” Pence told the crowd gathered at an old hangar near McConnell Air Force Base. “We’re going to do it.”
He’s probably wrong. The evidence that the new work requirements will hurt more than they help is mounting. And the fight over their inclusion in the farm bill isn’t a partisan one; it’s a fight between the House and the Senate. Facing opposition from within their party, House Republicans can’t muscle the bill through on their own. Even if Republicans keep control of the House after the midterms—a possibility looking more unlikely by the day—it’s likely they’ll end up caving to the Senate and cut the stricter provisions entirely.
The political motivation behind Pence’s new talking point seems clear. First of all, there’s the implication that it’s congressional Democrats’ opposition to tougher work requirements that’s holding up passage of the broader farm bill—a useful angle in farm country, where many farmers’ future planning is in limbo until they can be certain of the crop insurance and commodity supports they expect to receive through the legislation. And then there’s the long history of Republicans playing to stereotypes about the kind of people who receive welfare benefits, often in racially coded terms.
Since the House version of the bill was introduced, critics of its changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, have argued that they’re an excuse to kick otherwise eligible people off food stamps. It’s not just the work requirements that would reduce the number of people receiving benefits, analyses have shown; as my colleague Vann R. Newkirk II and I reported in September, a simulation found that the House bill’s changes to other eligibility requirements would remove 2 million people from the program. The requirements would have an outsize effect on poor, rural communities where jobs aren’t easily available.
Pence’s support for “dignity in work” belies the reality of the work requirements: According to a new study from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, most SNAP recipients either are already working or physically can’t. The share of people who aren’t already subject to work requirements within the program, who aren’t currently working, or who have no interest in working? “Less than 1 percent,” said Lauren Bauer, a Hamilton Project fellow and one of the study’s authors.
Indeed, the study found that two-thirds of the people who would be “newly exposed” to work requirements under the bill are already in the labor force. “This notion that we need to get people back into the workforce and back enjoying the dignity of work—two-thirds are working,” Bauer told me. “They’re working at low-wage jobs with volatile hours, and they’re not earning enough to earn their way out of the program. But two-thirds are working.”
She said a large share of those who are consistently out of the labor market report that they have serious health problems preventing them from working, even when they’re not on disability. And her research suggests they’re telling the truth. “They’re not lying,” she said. “People who say they’re not well are really not well.” The House bill’s strict reporting standards, which include verification of employment or a doctor’s note explaining why someone isn’t employed, could result in collateral damage: People who are working, or are too sick to work, could lose benefits if they don’t meet what Bauer calls the “paperwork burden.”
And contrary to Pence’s implication, the holdup over the farm bill isn’t because of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, it’s because there’s a massive chasm between the bill House Republicans just barely passed and the Senate’s bill, which passed with a decisive majority of 86 votes. The fierce divisions between the two chambers have effectively stalled the negotiations over the legislation, which is currently in conference committee.
The divide isn’t just over SNAP, which is in the section of the bill that deals with nutrition. The chambers have yet to come to an agreement on several of the farm bill’s 12 sections, conservation and commodities chief among them. “If we fixed SNAP today, I still wouldn’t have a farm bill,” House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, told a reporter earlier this week.
But the conference committee is still far from “fixing” SNAP. Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, respectively, have said that a farm bill will not pass the Senate with stricter work requirements for SNAP, making the House GOP’s proposal dead on arrival. Though staffers are meeting daily to hammer out differences between the bills, negotiations most likely won’t resume in earnest until after the midterms.
At that point, there’s a chance House Republicans will back off work requirements entirely. Though they’re a politically expedient issue now, after the election they’ll likely lose their luster. The longer the delay over the new farm bill, the more upset large-scale farmers, whose profits are already suffering because of Trump’s trade war, will be—and the more damage small-scale, row-crop farmers, whose aid programs expired with the farm bill, will incur. Looking ahead to 2020, the GOP can’t afford to take much more of a hit in its favorability ratings in important swing states like Iowa and Ohio, where the farm bill has a big impact.
If Democrats take control of the House, House Republicans won’t have the votes to pass a farm bill with more work requirements. Even in the event that Republicans hold on, they’ll almost certainly have to face the fact that the Senate’s opposition to work requirements is too solid, and too bipartisan, for them to counteract. Without the pressures of a reelection campaign, giving way on SNAP, and on all the other matters that divide the House from the Senate, would be much less politically costly for the House GOP. But for the next two and a half weeks leading up to the election, it’s the talking—not the doing—that matters.
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