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Some want to see an increase in food stamps to account for rising food prices. Others want to tighten work requirements. A compromise is certain as the two sides work toward a must-pass farm bill.
Like in a lot of other cities during the pandemic, many residents in Mesa, Arizona, were struggling to put food on the table.
Even last December, after businesses had reopened and the city’s economy was improving, residents were still grappling with food insecurity. Republican Mayor John Giles was struck by how many people continued to pick up free 50-pound boxes of canned food, pasta and meats that the city was handing out in the parking lot of a convention center near city hall.
“We had thousands of people, thousands of cars in our parking lot, waiting in line to get free food,” he said.
To Giles, that “reinforced” how many people still did have enough to eat even after Congress had increased the amount of food stamps people received during the pandemic.
Now that additional help is ending this month, even as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting that food prices will rise by 8% this year, after last year’s 10% spike.
People are about to be hit with a “double whammy of benefits going down and food prices going up,” said Giles, chairman of the Mayors Alliance to End Childhood Hunger, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 130 mayors from 45 states and the District of Columbia.
As Congress works on a must-pass farm bill, including deciding how much to spend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next five years, Giles and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are calling on lawmakers to approve a proposal that would raise the amount of food stamps people receive each month by nearly a third.
With the pandemic subsidies ending, the average amount of food stamps people receive each month will drop from $9-a-day to $6.10. Families will have to choose between spending money on food or medicine, the mayors said in a resolution it passed at its annual meeting last July.
The mayors also argued that the loss of money for families to buy food “will also reduce economic activity and hurt grocery stores and local food businesses.”
But Democrats and Republicans are split over what to do next. The sides have to reach an agreement on a new farm bill before the 2018 law lapses, which would trigger an automatic reduction in some crop subsidies.
Republicans are appalled by how federal spending for the program has nearly doubled in recent years, and how much the government is projected to spend over the next decade. In part to rein in the costs, as they push to reduce overall federal spending, several Republicans are proposing retracting the ability of states to waive work requirements on food stamps, a move that critics say could stop millions from continuing to be able to get the assistance.
Food Stamp Increases Are “Unsustainable”
Much of what's driving the debate is Republican anger over changes that the Biden administration made in 2021, which according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report last December, raised the amount of food stamps people receive by 21%. Those changes came on top of the additional $95-a-month people received as part of emergency allotments during the pandemic.
The emergency allotments are ending this month, but the 21% increase made by the Biden administration will stay in place. If it didn’t, the amount in food stamps would drop even further from $9-a-day to $4.75-a-day, according to a report by the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
At issue for Republicans is the increase in spending. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the Agriculture Committee’s top Republican, said during a hearing in February that the changes raised spending for the program beyond the inflation rate to what he called “record high levels that are unsustainable.”
Citing an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, Boozman said, “We will spend more on SNAP from 2023 to 2033 than we have in the previous two decades combined.”
Boozman worried that the increase in spending on SNAP would crowd out funding for other aspects of the farm bill, including subsidies for certain crops.
In its last update of the farm bill in 2018, Congress authorized the department to reexamine how it determines how much food stamps people should receive for the first time since 1975. The department in 2021 began considering factors like current food prices, consumption patterns and modern dietary guidance, including factoring in the ability to buy more fish and vegetables.
But Boozman, pointing to the GAO report, is concerned about how the agency conducted the reevaluation. It rushed through a process that was supposed to take eight months, he said, completing it in a little more than two.
The GAO report questioned some of the effort’s analysis. “Key decisions did not fully meet standards for economic analysis, primarily due to failure to fully disclose the rationale for decisions, insufficient analysis of the effects of decisions, and lack of documentation,” the report said.
Battle Brews Over Tighter Work Requirements
Republicans also want to revisit work requirements, contending that some states are being overly lenient in excusing able-bodied adults without children from work requirements.
As SNAP’s work requirements, which were suspended during the pandemic, come back into place with the end of the pandemic’s public health emergency in May, Republicans want to weaken the ability of states to excuse food stamp recipients from having to work or be in job training.
Before the pandemic, able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49, who do not have dependants, could only receive food stamps for up to three months during any three-year period, unless they worked or participated in job training for 80 hours a month.
States, though, were able to ask the federal government to waive the work requirement for 12% of their able-bodied recipients. Eighteen states had granted the waivers statewide and another seven have been allowed to waive the requirement in certain parts of their states.
“States should no longer be allowed to game the system,” Boozman said at the hearing in February. “Jobs, good jobs, are plentiful. There are more than 11 million jobs open across the economy, equivalent to nearly two job openings for every unemployed person.”
A spokesman for Boozman said the senator is still considering what changes to push exactly, but added that he wants to “address the concerns about the manner in which some states have utilized the process.”
A bill proposed last week by Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican, would limit the ability of states to waive time limits for able-bodied adults without dependents who are receiving SNAP benefits but not working. Under the America Works Act, states could still request waivers for areas of high unemployment.
The America Works Act would repeal states' ability to roll over unused individual exemptions from year to year. Additionally, the proposal would increase the age for able-bodied adults under work requirements to 65 years old.
Johnson's proposal, though, would continue to allow states to waive requirements for people who are disabled, pregnant, or are caring for children 7 years old or younger. States would also be able to waive the requirements if they have much higher unemployment than the rest of the country.
Last year, the Republican Study Committee, a study group of conservative House GOP members, proposed reducing the percentage of able-bodied adults that states can waive from the requirements from 12% to 5%.
In addition, the group also proposed replacing SNAP with a block grant program. The group reasoned that requiring states to pay a greater share of the program’s costs would push them to pass tougher work requirements.
The Agriculture Committee’s Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said during the hearing that she would reject “harsh work requirements that only serve as barriers to Americans getting the temporary help that they need.”
Giles also opposed tightening the requirements, noting that “SNAP has work requirements in place. No one should fear going without food. SNAP is intended to ensure families aren’t going to bed hungry.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.