Republicans Pitch Cuts To Federal Food Benefits

The debt ceiling standoff will likely include a fight over “work requirements” for low-income households.

WASHINGTON — All year, Republicans have said they want President Joe Biden to agree to major spending cuts without saying what cuts they want.

In recent days, however, Republicans have signaled they want to cut federal programs that help low-income Americans buy food and go to the doctor.

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) on Tuesday introduced legislation that would expand “work requirements” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal policy often known as food stamps that helps more than 20 million households buy groceries.

The program already limits benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents who fail to work at least 20 hours per week, though there are a variety of exceptions and states often waive the requirement. Roughly 13% of households served by SNAP contained able-bodied childless adults under age 50, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Roughly a quarter of such households earned money from working.

Johnson’s proposal would reduce state discretion over eligibility rules and expand the definition of able-bodied adults without dependents to include people in their 50s and early 60s; the current cutoff is 49.

“Work is the best pathway out of poverty,” Johnson said in a press release. “With more than 11 million open jobs, there are plenty of opportunities for SNAP recipients to escape poverty and build a better life.”

The proposal comes as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stares down Biden over federal spending, with Republicans threatening to block an increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit if Biden won’t agree to cuts. If the government can’t borrow money, it can’t pay its bills. A federal debt default could cause a financial crisis, and Republicans hope the threat forces Biden’s hand.

Johnson is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and intends his legislation to be folded into a farm bill that the committee will produce this year. Congress has a tradition of modifying SNAP benefits every five years in tandem with changes to farm subsidies. Republicans routinely demand stricter work requirements, but usually don’t get them.

McCarthy won the speakership partly by catering to members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, and last week the group laid out demands for the debt limit fight that included work requirements for an unspecified number of federal programs. The farm bill could get entangled with the broader spending fight.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) told HuffPost last week that some of his colleagues might not realize that SNAP already has work requirements.

“There’s a small number of folks, all of a sudden they’ve discovered the idea of work requirements for SNAP benefits,” Thompson said. “We’ve had those for decades.”

Thompson noted that a significant number of SNAP recipients do work, but he suggested he might favor expanding the definition of “able-bodied adult” to include people in their 50s ― somewhat along the lines of what Johnson proposed.

Tighter eligibility for a relatively small number of SNAP recipients wouldn’t have much effect on the federal budget, since the entire SNAP program amounts to about 2% of U.S. annual spending. But Republicans have ruled out the biggest programs, namely Social Security and Medicare, so will likely settle for symbolic changes.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a leading House Freedom Caucus member, said his group also favored work requirements for Medicaid, a program that covers health care for low-income households and historically has not denied benefits to people for being unemployed. The Donald Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements, though most state initiatives were blocked by federal courts.

Roy said he would defer to McCarthy and Thompson when it came to the details of actual legislation changing benefits programs.

“We don’t want to get in front of committees and get in front of the leadership that I think we’re pretty simpatico with on most of this stuff,” he said.

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