Photo by Scott Heins, Getty Images
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 25, 2023
Hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans could face higher barriers to food assistance under the U.S. House Republican plan to cut spending while temporarily lifting the debt limit, advocates say.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s Limit, Save, Grow Act proposes returning discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit, often called the debt ceiling, by $1.5 trillion — but only through March 31, 2024, at the latest.
McCarthy’s bill would expand the additional work requirements for certain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients who do not have children. The idea has gained traction in a bill recently introduced by Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican.
As the law stands now, all recipients of federal nutrition aid ages 16 to 59 must either be looking for work, enrolled in a SNAP employment training program, or pulling in wages equivalent to 30 hours per week at the federal minimum wage.
Some exceptions exist, for example, for people who already have a job, are physically or mentally unable, or are caring for a child under 6.
Additional work requirements come into play for able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who do not have dependents. They must work for pay, attend a training program or volunteer 80 hours a month — though some states can waive these requirements depending on unemployment figures and other factors.
Those in that age range who don’t meet the work requirements, and cannot secure an exemption, can only receive SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, for three months over a three-year period.
McCarthy’s proposal aims to raise that age window to 55, beefing up work rules for a slim population of SNAP beneficiaries who are already subject to the program’s baseline requirements.
The SNAP age adjustment, plus proposed expanded work requirements for other low-income benefit programs — including Medicaid, which provides health insurance, and Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families, which assists families with children — could cut $100 billion and $120 billion in government spending over the next ten years, according to respective analyses from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Moody’s Analytics.
That’s a tiny fraction of the roughly $4.5 trillion McCarthy’s bill is estimated to save over the next decade, according to the CRFB and Moody’s.
Those in favor of expanding the work requirements for adults without dependents ages 50 to 55, like the libertarian think tank the CATO Institute, acknowledge it’s a “small part of the savings from the Republican plan.”
“But it is important to begin reining in bloated entitlements, and adjusting eligibility to encourage work is a good place to start,” wrote Chris Edwards, with the CATO Institute.
Advocates say no to the change
But advocates for older adults and anti-hunger campaigns are speaking out against the proposed age adjustment, citing several reasons.
According to an AARP 2020 research survey, 9.5 million SNAP recipients are 50 or older.
Roughly a million of those recipients are between 50 and 55, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates in its analysis of McCarthy’s proposal.
AARP and the CBPP argue that raising the work requirement age will only place barriers in the way of a demographic that already faces age discrimination when applying for jobs, among other existing discriminatory hiring practices.
The CBPP’s state-by-state breakdown, based on 2019 figures, shows that anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of SNAP beneficiaries fit into the 50 to 55 age range across each of the 50 states, District of Columbia and U.S. territories. In Maine, according to the estimate, as many as 3000 adults could lose their benefits.
Further, the CBPP warns that McCarthy’s proposal would strip some narrow exemptions for able-bodied adults without dependents who need benefits beyond the three-month window.
“Recognizing the harshness of the time limit and its inability to adjust for unexpected or unique circumstances, Congress allowed states to exempt a small percentage (about 12 percent) of people subject to the time limit,” the analysis read. “States can use these discretionary exemptions in cases when, for example, someone faces a sudden hardship like car trouble or has recently been released from prison or treatment for substance use disorder.
Adding to its arguments, the CBPP also points to the math that another portion of McCarthy’s plan — to repeal funding passed in 2022 to beef up Internal Revenue Service tax collections — roughly cancels out the savings of enforcing new work requirements on SNAP, Medicaid and TANF recipients.
Moody’s and the Committee for a Responsible Budget respectively calculate that repealing the IRS funding will eventually cost the government $100 billion to $114 billion over the next decade.
Another argument against the SNAP changes: Advocates repeatedly spotlight research finding little evidence that expanded work rules are effective.
Two recent studies found work requirements did not improve employment or earnings, and at the same time cut people who could have qualified from accessing food benefits.
“Work requirements do not get people out of poverty. Seventy-five percent of SNAP recipients with children who are not disabled or elderly already work. They are just underemployed or underpaid,” Heather Reynolds, of Notre Dame University’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, told a Senate Committee on Agriculture subcommittee on April 19.
“Our solution must be to give them programs that work towards upward mobility and are proven to be successful, so they can feed their families and live a life outside of poverty,” she continued.
In response to McCarthy’s plan, Democrats on the House Committee on Appropriations say the bill will hurt families, seniors and workers with its host of proposed cuts.
Moody’s concludes that under the legislation nondefense discretionary spending could fall to its lowest levels since the 1960s.
The slim House Republican majority means McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of votes from his own party.
But some think his expansion of work rules on low-income benefits programs does not go far enough.
“An essential element to get my vote for any increase in the debt limit would be enacting work requirements starting in fiscal year 2024 – NOT 2025 as the legislation is currently written. Otherwise, it’s a no vote from me,” GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida posted to Twitter Monday.
Gaetz was among the GOP holdouts in January who demanded McCarthy tie spending cuts to a debt ceiling increase in exchange for their support in getting McCarthy the speaker’s gavel.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who hold a razor-thin majority in the upper chamber, and President Joe Biden say they will stand firm on passing what they call a “clean” debt ceiling bill — meaning raising the nation’s borrowing limit without touching spending.
The U.S. hit its $31.4 trillion borrowing limit on Jan. 19, triggering the U.S. Treasury Department to employ “extraordinary measures,” or special accounting maneuvers, to continue paying the nation’s bills.
The X-date — the date when Treasury, despite the maneuvers, runs out of cash needed to pay the bills on time — may arrive as early as June, according to Moody’s.
McCarthy is banking on a House vote this week. After Friday, the House is out until May 9.
Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.