Why the Failure of the Farm Bill Was Good for Low-Income Families

Last week, the House of Representatives rejected the Farm Bill by a 195-234 vote. The bill, which usually enjoys support from both sides of the aisle, was defeated by an unlikely -- and bi-partisan -- coalition of those who opposed the deep cuts of more than $20 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and those who thought that the bill did not go far enough in cutting nutrition programs and agricultural subsidies.

In particular, the final straw for many supporters of SNAP was an amendment introduced by Representative Steve Southerland (R-FL) and passed at the last minute. Some have described this amendment as allowing states to impose "work requirements" on SNAP recipients, but that is deeply misleading. States already have the authority to require SNAP recipients who are not employed, and who do not meet specified exemption criteria, to participate in employment and training programs, and can sanction those who do not participate when offered the opportunity. Non-disabled working age adults without dependents are further subject to time limits on SNAP benefits if they are not working or participating in an employment or training program.

The Southerland amendment would have incentivized states to deny SNAP benefits to needy individuals and families by allowing the states to keep half the savings resulting from decreased SNAP payments, even though the federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits. Because the amendment would not have provided any new funding for work or training programs, states would have had to dip into their own budgets or tap already insufficient workforce funding to provide any new services. While states could have received bonuses for moving recipients into jobs, they could also, far more easily, have received bonuses for denying benefits to recipients who were willing to work but unable to find jobs or even get into training programs. States could have used these bonuses for any purpose -- including building roads or cutting taxes on wealthy households. The opportunity to divert funding from needy individuals and families would have been more extreme even than under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, where funds saved due to declining numbers of families receiving cash assistance must at least be reinvested into other programs serving low-income families.

SNAP has been a critical part of the safety net in recent years, lifting millions of individuals out of poverty and limiting the rise of food insecurity and hunger during the recession. A recent study found that nearly 4 out of 10 children with unemployed parents received SNAP benefits during the recession, a higher share of such children than received unemployment insurance benefits. SNAP will be even more essential to these families as federal extended unemployment benefits expire. However, it is precisely these families who would be most at risk if the Southerland amendment became law, as states could deny entire families SNAP benefits even though the parents were willing to work.

Many benefit programs such as unemployment assistance and TANF already vary greatly from state to state. SNAP provides the promise of a minimum nutritional safety net to low-income individuals regardless of the state they call home. Allowing states to boost their budgets by depriving low-income families of the nutritional assistance they need would break that promise.