An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the final quote about food stamps to Ellen Teller of the Food Research & Action Center. The quote came from Ellen Vollinger, the SNAP director at the same organization. The article is corrected.
Formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, food stamps provide lower-income households with an average of over $230 each month for groceries. Federal officials administer the aid, but states set additional rules and manage the payments, often provided through a debit card.
Anti-poverty experts have long described the money as critical, yet insufficient at times, in subsidizing families’ food needs over the course of a month. But Democrats’ efforts to expand SNAP aid have been met with steep and intensifying Republican opposition, as GOP lawmakers argue that food stamps and other government benefit programs cost too much and deter millions of Americans from entering the workforce.
Since winning control of the House, some GOP leaders have started to explore ways to translate their criticisms into federal policy. They have attacked the Biden administration for its recent benefit increases. They have called for limiting aid to entire categories of recipients, including poor adults without children. And they have raised the potential they could seek even tougher work requirements.
“We need to go back to the Clinton-era welfare-to-work reforms,” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.), the leader of the House Budget Committee, said in a recent interview. He referred to GOP-led efforts in the 1990s — backed by the White House at the time — that imposed a raft of limitations on federal benefit programs.
Arrington, who will lead House Republicans’ work to craft a balanced budget, included SNAP as a source for potential savings in a cost-cutting memo issued last week. His panel said work requirements would “save tens of billions and spur economic growth,” while strict verification processes from applicants would cut down on waste, fraud and abuse.
Such changes could open the door to debilitating cuts, according to food policy experts, who fear it could worsen an existing hunger crisis. Adding to their concerns, the debate arrives only two months after Congress agreed to terminate a pandemic-era initiative that boosted benefits in some states. The move could send some SNAP recipients’ monthly allotments plummeting by an average of $82 each month starting in March, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), an anti-hunger advocacy group. The looming cut stands in stark contrast to federal inflation indicators released this week showing that food prices remain on the rise.
“We are strained to the breaking point with a major increase in demand coming next month,” said Vince Hall, the chief government relations officer for Feeding America, a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks that provided more than 5 billion meals last year. “It is deeply disturbing to contemplate even further reductions to the SNAP program.”
The early discussions offer clues about the kind of cuts and other policies that Republicans are contemplating ahead of a series of high-stakes fiscal showdowns this year. At the heart of the fight is the country’s roughly $31 trillion debt, which GOP lawmakers have blamed on Democrats even though both parties share responsibility.
In recent weeks, Republicans have signaled they are willing to wager the country’s credit — and a fight over its ability to borrow, known as the debt ceiling — to secure significant reductions in federal spending. The result has inched the nation close to the fiscal brink, threatening the government with default as soon as this summer.
But policymakers in Washington face another looming deadline regardless of the debt limit: A key federal law that authorizes agricultural subsidies and nutrition programs including SNAP is set to expire at the end of September. Lawmakers must approve some sort of extension before Oct. 1, or enact a newer version of the measure, known colloquially in the Capitol as the “farm bill.” Otherwise, millions of farmers and families alike could experience significant economic disruptions this fall.
That process — mired in political bickering and fierce industry lobbying — has opened the door for resurgent Republicans to weigh significant changes to a food stamp program that paid more than $119 billion in benefits last year.
Firing an early warning shot, a group of five conservatives led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) last week cited the country’s “untenable” debt levels as they called for new “work requirements as a feature of welfare reform.” They specifically pointed to the need to make “structural reforms of SNAP,” saying such rules would restore “dignity” for beneficiaries.
“Breaking this poverty trap will help future generations avoid welfare programs altogether,” wrote Gaetz and others, including Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
SNAP already has some work requirements, but the rules can be complicated — and they often vary considerably by state.
In general, SNAP beneficiaries between ages 16 and 59 must register for work, participate in any required state-based training programs and take a job if offered, with exceptions for some categories of Americans, including those who are disabled and parents of kids under age 6. Federal law grants vast latitude to local officials to make training programs voluntary or mandatory.
SNAP beneficiaries who have no children and other dependents, meanwhile, may only collect aid for three months in a three-year period unless they obtain employment. But states may also waive some of these rules temporarily to enroll people in high-unemployment areas.
Republicans have faulted that approach as insufficient, seizing on, in particular, the waivers.
“I grew up very poor, I’ve seen the impact of just continually giving out food stamps without any requirement to ever get off them,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), the leader of the Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of House GOP lawmakers.
Offering its own budget road map last year, the RSC proposed to end those waivers while suggesting other significant changes to SNAP, which included new limits on how long families could collect benefits and stricter financial eligibility rules.
Hern, meanwhile, personally penned letters to federal leaders pushing for work requirements and warning against expanding benefits. In a recent interview, he said the food stamp program needed to help poor Americans become “liberated by a job, get into the workforce, learn a skill set and become more profitable and more productive for the economy.”
Democratic lawmakers — and top advocates for SNAP — say the RSC’s proposed changes could force millions of Americans off food stamps, leaving them vulnerable to hunger. Ty Jones Cox, the vice president for food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning group, said there can be “multiple layers of barriers to employment,” including a lack of available jobs. And she noted the focus of SNAP is not labor but hunger, adding there are other avenues to help people return to the workforce.
“It doesn’t have to be built off the back of a food program,” Cox said.
In the House, the task to craft a compromise — and a broader resolution to a brewing farm bill battle — is set to fall to Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.), the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. At a hearing to organize the panel last week, Thompson promised broadly to focus on “tackling rising inflation and input costs, energy costs, addressing the politicization of science, and keeping a watchful eye on excessive regulations and spending from this administration.”
Publicly, Thompson has sought to distance himself from some in his party who have linked new work requirements to the debate around the debt ceiling. But a Republican aide, who requested anonymity to describe the panel’s early deliberations, said some elements of existing law are worth review — including states’ use of waivers to exempt adults without children from some SNAP rules.
Thompson and his counterpart, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), still blasted the Biden administration for recently increasing SNAP benefit amounts. They specifically faulted the administration’s tweaks to the Thrifty Food Plan, which helps determine average grocery costs for the purposes of setting food stamp amounts.
The same tensions surfaced again Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee focused on federal nutrition programs. The panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), opened the session by touting the economic benefits of SNAP as she urged lawmakers to reject “harsh work requirements that only serve as barriers" to poor Americans. But Boozman, the panel’s top Republican, reprised his past criticisms, stressing that the government’s current spending levels on food stamps “aren’t sustainable.” He added that the Agriculture Department needs to “get serious about enforcing work requirements” in the program.
Other Democrats have pledged to stand firm against changes to SNAP that cut into its beneficiaries’ financial and physical well-being. The White House pointed this week to President Biden’s past calls instead to expand SNAP eligibility. And Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that he had already taken his concerns about cuts directly to Thompson at a recent, private dinner.
“And I said, I need your support, and I’m willing to give you my support on some things,” recalled Scott, describing the early talks as “positive.”
The emerging GOP campaign arrives at a pivotal moment for the nutrition program, which is set to cease providing emergency pandemic payments this March. Congress terminated the allotments as part of a $1.7 trillion deal to fund the government reached at the end of last year, though some states — including Arizona, Florida and Mississippi — already had returned SNAP benefits to their normal amounts.
In its place, federal lawmakers made permanent another program that helps provide food for students when they are home from school during the summer and unable to access free lunch. But the looming end to pandemic emergency benefits may be felt most among seniors, some of whom could see their SNAP aid pared back to merely $23 per month, according to FRAC.
“It’s a steep cliff for everybody. $82 is a lot of money to lose,” said Ellen Vollinger, who oversees SNAP at the organization.
Another set of changes arrives as soon as this summer, coinciding with the end of the nation’s coronavirus public health emergency — a move long sought by the GOP and recently announced by Biden. Once the emergency is lifted, several SNAP policies are set to change, including those that ease the SNAP enrollment process for adults without children and for college students.
The flurry of activity in Washington complements similar efforts in state capitals. An Iowa House committee, for example, considered banning people on food stamps from buying fresh meat, sliced cheese, white bread and other foods with their benefit. Republicans later amended it to only forbid soda and candy, though the state in recent weeks has considered other significant cuts to SNAP.
In many ways, the emerging fight is a familiar one in Washington. Five years ago, a GOP House and Democratic Senate similarly forged ahead on a renewal of the farm bill — and found themselves sparring over federal nutrition programs.
At the time, Republicans aimed to subject a wider array of SNAP recipients to work requirements, including older Americans. Along with other policy changes, the GOP plan could have slashed benefits for roughly 1 million households, according to contested estimates at the time.
Ultimately, Democrats battled back those changes, but Republicans did not relent. A frequent critic of food stamps, President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to slash the program, including an unsuccessful attempt to terminate benefits for unemployed Americans, which would have affected about 700,000 people during the pandemic.
“This is not the first time we’ve heard some of this talk coming out of some members on the Hill,” said Vollinger, reflecting on the fight five years after the last farm bill showdown. “We’ve seen this before.”
Laura Reiley contributed to this report.