Lawmaker pushes to reform food stamp program

Critics argue the proposal could harm those who depend on public benefits.

By the numbers:

Some lawmakers, including Urbana’s Jim Jordan, are pushing to reform the federal food assistance program, arguing too many Americans remain on assistance despite a recovering economy.

U.S. Rep. Jordan, R-Urbana, introduced a bill late last month that would require a review of federal welfare programs. It would also require able-bodied adults without dependents to work at least 80 hours per month, or take part in vocational training to continue to receive benefits. It would provide more lenient requirements for families with children.

But critics argued the proposal could actually harm many individuals who rely on the program to provide basic necessities. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated between 500,000 and 1 million U.S. adults will lose their SNAP benefits this year as waivers to the work requirements expire.

Federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, spiked during the recession according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Budget Office. In fiscal year 2014, 47 million people, — about 1 in 7 residents in the U.S. — received SNAP benefits in an average month, according to the CBO. In 2007, that number was about 26 million people, or about 1 in 11 U.S. residents.

“Welfare programs are meant to be a temporary safety net, but they have become a permanent way of life for millions of Americans,” Jordan said. “Instead of giving impoverished families and individuals a helping hand, the current system penalizes positive steps toward self-sufficiency.”

Adjusted for inflation, federal spending in the SNAP program rose from $39 billion in 2007 to $76 billion in 2014, according to the CBO.

Funding for the program comes from the federal government, but states have some leeway in how they administer the program. Benefit calculations are similar nationally, but eligibility rules can vary from state to state.

However, critics argue spending in the program has already started to fall, albeit slowly, as the economy has crawled back out of the recession. And there is little evidence that work requirements lift people out of poverty, according to a report released this month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

“Work requirements rest on the assumption that disadvantaged individuals will work only if they’re forced to do so, despite the intensive efforts that many poor individuals and families put into working at low-wage jobs that offer unpredictable hours and schedules that don’t pay enough for them to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads without public assistance of some kind,” the report argues.

Local impact

Local enrollment in the program has mirrored the state trend. About 17,400 people were enrolled in the SNAP program in Clark County in 2007, but that figure spiked to 27,811 in 2011, according to information from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Since then, enrollment has fallen annually, to 24,954 recipients last year.

There were about 2,800 recipients in Champaign County in 2007 and that spiked to about 5,300 residents in 2011. About 4,100 residents were in SNAP program last year. Information from the Ohio DJFS shows the average monthly SNAP payment per recipient in Ohio was about $132, or slightly less than $4.50 per day.

Federal spending on the program is expected to continue to decline over the next decade, but will remain higher than it was before the recession, according to the CBO report. It estimates the government will spend about $60 billion on the program in 2525, adjusted for inflation, about 20 percent less than was spent in 2014. But that will still be about 50 percent more than was spent in 2007, and nearly 1 in 10 U.S. residents are projected to still receive benefits.

Federal welfare reform legislation instituted work requirements for childless adults in the mid-1990s, but those were suspended in many states, including Ohio at the height of the recession.

However, many states have since reinstated work requirements, including Ohio, said Susan Bailey-Evans, director of Job and Family Services in Champaign County. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 50 with no dependents who receive SNAP benefits are required to participate in employment and training programs or to work for at least 20 hours a week, according to information from the DJFS.

Poverty statistics have remained fairly consistent in Clark County, whether work requirements were in place or not, said Virginia Marytz, director of Job and Family Services in Clark County.

Social workers review each case individually once an individual applies for SNAP benefits, said Barbara Knabe, public assistance program administrator for Champaign County DJFS. Each individual case is so different, it’s hard to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of work requirements, she said.

“There’s not one answer that fits every case,” Knabe said. “If there were, by now I hope we would have figured it out.”

Growing trend

Both proponents and critics of reinstating the work requirements agree it will lead to fewer people receiving benefits. They disagree on why.

Jordan said he modeled his bill off similar reforms in Maine that he said boosted wages for workers while slashing the number of adults who relied on SNAP benefits. It is also not the only recent proposal to reform welfare programs by reinstating work requirements. Earlier this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan released an economic agenda for the Republican Party that also pushes for welfare reforms that include work requirements to reduce poverty. Jordan’s bill is separate, but does cover many of those topics.

Along with requiring a work component to the SNAP program, Jordan’s bill would also require a review of approximately 80 social welfare programs to get a better picture of total federal spending.

“Speaker Ryan understands the importance of creating opportunities for people to rise out of poverty and help rebuild America,” Jordan said. “Instead of giving handouts, our welfare system needs work incentives and a strong partnership program to help every American achieve their potential.”

Those kinds of proposals don’t take into account the real problems adults and families face when trying to re-enter the workforce, said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program for the Center for American Progress.

Conservative proposals that focus on work requirements are typically based on the assumption individuals don’t want to work, Vallas said. And they will likely force thousands of people out of programs that provided needed assistance, she argued.

“The reality is that with widening income inequality and decades of flat or declining wages, we’ve got families who are working harder and harder than ever but still falling further and further behind. In large part, that’s because our minimum wage in this country has become a poverty wage,” Vallas said.

U. S. Sen. Sherrod Brown argued the SNAP program served as an important safety net during the recession and pointed out the number of recipients has begun to decline. He argued for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and making it permanent for workers without children.

“Families already use SNAP to supplement other income,” Brown said. “While the benefits the program provides are vital, they’re often not enough to feed an entire family on their own. We know most people want to work – let’s focus on getting them steady jobs with fair wages, not creating additional obstacles to these important benefits.”

Better solutions to address poverty would focus on improving access to affordable child care, or making sure workers have access to paid leave, Vallas said. In addition, states can require workers to seek job training or work a specific number of hours per month, she said. But the states are under no obligation to fully fund job training programs, she said.

“You can have individuals who are struggling and would love to participate in a job training program, but if a slot isn’t there and the state isn’t funding the program (workers) can end up being out of compliance with this policy,” Vallas said.

Other challenges

The Ohio Association of Food Banks also produced a recent study focusing on able-bodied adults in the SNAP program in Franklin County. That agency’s Work Experience Program provides work experience for participants who are unemployed or under employed, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the organization. The study assessed about 5,000 individuals and Hamler-Fugitt argued that even the term “able-bodied” is often misleading.

Many of the individuals the agency worked with as part of the study didn’t have basic items needed to apply for a job, Hamler-Fugitt said. Clients reported issues like not having a permanent mailing address, while some reported having irregular access to email or struggled with technology and computers. More than 35 percent of clients in the program reported having a felony conviction, making it more difficult to find employment.

Only about 40 percent of clients in the study had a valid driver’s license, meaning most of the rest either relied on public transportation or were driving without a license.

“How do you look for a job when you have no access to the Internet and no car,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

But Jordan argued getting more people off programs like SNAP will help both taxpayers and residents he argued are stuck in the system now.

“Taxpayers are willing to help people who truly need it,” Jordan said. “But at some point we are also saying if you’re an able-bodied adult, lets do this on a temporary basis. Let’s incentivize work and get you the help you need so you’re no longer on the program long-term.”

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