The Republican Poverty Agenda: More Job Training, More Pee

Republicans are pushing for some food stamp applicants to pass drug tests.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said a requirement that some food stamp recipients take drug tests coul
Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said a requirement that some food stamp recipients take drug tests could end up in a bill his panel will soon debate.

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. government runs just one large-scale program that supplements poor people’s incomes and Republicans want to make that support more difficult for some to obtain.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, gives more than 40 million Americans a monthly food allowance averaging about $125 per recipient ― less than a typical person needs for a month’s worth of food.

Republicans on Capitol Hill want more SNAP recipients to enroll in government training programs or take available jobs that are likely to pay little. Republicans in the Trump administration are considering a plan promoted by several GOP governors to have some SNAP recipients urinate in cups to prove they’re not on drugs.

The Department of Agriculture may allow states to drug test SNAP recipients, according to emails obtained and published this week by the Associated Press. The tests would be required mostly for able-bodied people who have no dependents, according to the AP.

Republican governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin have long wanted to drug test some food stamp beneficiaries, but had been blocked from doing so by the Obama administration.

An Agriculture Department spokeswoman said requiring drug testing for food stamp eligibility is illegal under federal law, but that some states are interested in tests for those recipients receiving additional benefits, such as work training.  

“It is USDA’s responsibility to ensure that states are properly administering SNAP programs and we are reviewing guidance on this topic for states expressing interest,” the spokeswoman said. 

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers formally unveiled a proposal that would reduce food stamp enrollment by requiring more beneficiaries to work or enroll in the training programs.

The bill doesn’t include a drug testing requirement, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the bill’s lead author, said such a provision could wind up in a later version of the legislation. The committee will consider the bill next week.

“We have some members on the committee who have a keen interest in that,” Conaway told HuffPost. “We’ll have a fulsome conversation; does that work, does that not work.”

Both the drug testing scheme and Conaway’s training proposals face significant obstacles. Administratively greenlighting drug tests would likely result in a swift legal challenge. The Agriculture Department during the Obama administration contended that federal law doesn’t allow it, and a federal court tossed a lawsuit by Walker challenging that position.

On Capitol Hill, Conaway’s legislation faces a narrow path through the House ― with Democrats and some conservative Republicans opposed to it ― and an even tougher road in the Senate. The food stamp provisions are part of a larger-scale farm bill that include an array of agriculture welfare programs that technically expire at the end of September. 

The drug testing and training proposals are premised on complaints from businesses that they can’t find enough workers for available jobs, though another explanation could be that the unfilled jobs don’t pay enough to attract workers. Wage growth for all but the wealthiest Americans has been sluggish-to-nonexistent for the past decade.

The bill would expand the pool of unemployed able-bodied adults required to engage in “work activities” in order to receive SNAP benefits. Such people made up about 8.8 percent of food stamp recipients in 2016, down from 10.5 percent in 2013. 

Agriculture Committee member Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) emphasized that the bill isn’t designed to save money by kicking people off food stamps. The legislation would use the savings from lower enrollment to pay for guaranteed slots in training programs for SNAP recipients subject to the requirements. Currently, most states don’t guarantee SNAP recipients spots in training programs.  

“We’re not taking anything away,” Thompson said.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has said Republicans are being unrealistic about how much it would cost to set the training programs.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Agriculture Committee’s top Democrat, said Conaway’s bill “will force people off of SNAP to pay for massive state bureaucracies that won’t work and are a waste of money.”