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What Did They Say…Or Do?

 

December 21, 2018

When it was announced early this year that Congress sought to revamp the food stamps program as part of its renewal of the far-reaching Farm Bill, fear arose that the most vulnerable people in our society would face further cruelty. In short, their pocketbooks and access to food would be curtailed.

One of the things many lawmakers wanted to add was work requirements, in order to dispel the perception among some that they are living on the government dole and are unproductive citizens. Of course, this perception is vastly exaggerated if not just plain erroneous.

As mentioned in previous dispatches, most food stamp recipients do indeed work. The reason they qualify for food stamps is because their jobs probably don’t pay livable wages, which is different from minimum wage.

On Dec. 11, on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate approved an $867 billion farm bill that would provide much needed aid to the agricultural industry‑—and keep the food stamps program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), largely unchanged, at least on the big-picture scale.

Unlike the legislation in the House of Representatives, the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill lacks work requirements. This big difference would have seemed like a major deal-breaker. However, it appeared like it wasn’t, as President Donald Trump signed the farm bill during a ceremony on the afternoon of Thursday, December 20.

There is a catch though. A big one. Even though the actual farm bill doesn’t stipulate new work requirements, as the House sought, the Trump Administration is still seeking them through an administrative rule change.

Specifically, the Agriculture Department has proposed a rule change that would restrict states’ abilities to grant so-called waivers to “able-bodied,” non-disabled food stamp recipients seeking work. Waivers issued by states enable recipients to continue receiving SNAP benefits if they haven’t found a job with a specific time period.

However, the Agriculture Department wants to restrict the granting of waivers further. Unless they live in areas that have high rates of unemployment, these able-bodied recipients would unlikely receive an extension on their food security benefits.

Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the proposal, citing the strong economy and department data that shows some 75 percent of the 3.8 million able-bodied SNAP benefit recipients were not working as of 2016.

“This is unacceptable to most Americans and belies common sense, particularly when employment opportunities are plentiful as they currently are,” Perdue said.

At least one member of Congress, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, took issue with the rule change proposal, as it appeared to be an end-run around Congress.

“Congress writes laws and the administration is required to write rules based on the law, not the other way around. … Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology,” Stabenow said in a statement.

Much of the push for passing the bill stemmed from the financial pressures many farmers were facing, particularly from the recent tariffs that have been placed on agricultural products. That need largely transcended the political and ideological battles that seemed to pervade much of the time on this issue.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry, said the following:

“We’ve been trying to point out this is no time for a revolutionary farm bill. It’s time to get a bill done so our farmers have predictability and certainty during a very difficult time. ”

Farmers, like businesses, usually have to plan well ahead to meet the needs of the marketplace, making sure they have enough capital and other capacities to develop salable products. It’s a familiar argument that’s also been used in debates about tax cuts and whether or not to raise the minimum wage.

The Farm Bill that was signed by Trump still seems largely status quo for recipients, in that actual benefits won’t shrink as was feared in the early days of the debate. Recipients will not have to rely on government-issued food boxes containing non-perishable or canned goods, and local food banks and farmers markets stand to benefit from the bill as well. Most of the changes appear to be ones designed to streamline the program’s bureaucracy and make it more efficient.

Also, the bill expands eligibility for federal subsidies to more-distant relatives of farmers, such as cousins, nephews and nieces, something that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is an actual farmer, opposed.

“I’m very disappointed the conferees decided to expand the loopholes on farm subsidies,” Grassley said. “I’ve been trying to make sure the people who get the subsidies are real farmers. … I’ve been trying for three years, and it gets worse and worse and worse.”

While no legislation is fully perfect, it’s safe to say that the fears that once existed regarding loss of benefits have been greatly lessened after Trump signed the bill.

Still, at the end of the day, SNAP is meant to be a temporary segue to a more independent, self-sustaining life. Islamic Relief USA strongly recommends individuals to continue finding ways to be self-reliant and shape their own existence. That way, if the government does flinch, people will not be caught off guard.

However, it’s also true when the private market is not helping individuals climb the rungs of society’s ladder, the government should provide a helping hand. Within reason, of course.