Experts say Farm Bill work requirement would increase food insecurity

Originally published by the Chestnut Hill Local on November 8, 2018

By Sue Ann Rybak

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is probably not a program many Chestnut Hill residents need to use. Less than five miles away in Germantown, however, where more than 26 percent of the residents live in deep poverty, SNAP is a lifeline.

Deep poverty is defined as living on less than 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. For a single person, it means living on $5,400 a year or less and, for a family, $11,700 a year or less.

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA) said, the 2014 Farm Bill expired on Oct. 1, 2018, “leaving 39 programs without authorization or funding.”

“Fortunately, SNAP uses mandatory funding and will continue to operate through the appropriations process,” he said. “Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees continue to meet during the recess to reach an agreement on the bill. They have reported they are hopeful to have a compromise bill ready for the lame duck session. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I will keep fighting to protect Philadelphians and people across America who rely on SNAP from cuts.”

While SNAP, which is renewed every five years, typically has passed bi-partisan support. This year the Senate and the House have passed radically different bills. The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, “Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018” or S.3042, maintains the program’s current eligibility requirements and provides additional funding for pilot programs that connect individuals with significant barriers to employment.

Unfortunately, the House’s version of the Farm Bill, “The Agriculture & Nutrition Act of 2018” or H.R. 2, contains changes to SNAP that could cause more than one million low-income households to lose their benefits or have them reduced. Under the House bill, individuals 18-59, who aren’t disabled and don’t have children under the age of six would be required to work a minimum of 20 hours a week. The first time participants fail to meet these requirements, they would lose their benefits for a year.

Kate Scully, director of government affairs for Philabundance, said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a “critical program” that supports the health and well-being of the most vulnerable: children, older adults and people with disabilities.

“Food is expensive, and when a decision needs to be made around paying the rent or heating bills and buying food, often people will choose to go without food or buy unhealthy less expensive options,” she said. “At Philabundance, we are grateful to be able to serve over 90,000 people each week in our service area, but we know if SNAP is cut we would not be able to increase our capacity to the level needed to serve everyone who would need assistance. SNAP provides 12 times the amount of all the food banks in the country, it supports local economies, and it alleviates poverty when people cannot find work or work that pays enough to make ends meet. Cuts to SNAP will mean increased hunger, health complications from malnutrition, and poverty.”

Dr. Lauren Barrow, assistant professor of criminal justice at Chestnut Hill College, said the work requirements would place additional barriers on formerly incarcerated individuals – especially women with children.

“One of the greatest challenges facing returning citizens is the bias against employment period,” she said.

She said many companies have a zero tolerance policy for any criminal offense – “especially a felony offense.”

“One of the problems we have in criminal justice is there are felony drug offenses which are not violent, and these individuals are being almost relegated and forced into low income opportunities, specifically with respect to females,”Barrow said. “It’s not just about providing for themselves. When their children are returned to them then they must provide for the children as well. So, it’s a perpetuation of poverty and low income status that this population suffers from, and we would not just be harming the women but now we are extending that harm to the children.”

According to the Center on the Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 63 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children and almost 42 percent of SNAP participants are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities.

“To me, if they are going to recommend these changes, they are going to have to fix the problem with employment,” Barrow said. “We are not going to provide employment opportunities, and we are going to take away assistance. That doesn’t seem conducive to creating a successful reentry program. We are creating the very situation of desperation that we know is highly collated to criminal behavior by denying individuals the opportunity to feed themselves.”

She said having multiple children, limited work opportunities due to having a criminal record and often erratic school schedules can make meeting the 20-hour work requirement extremely difficult for formerly incarcerated women.

“There doesn’t seem to be any flexibility for the reality of what it means to have children,” she said. “Children need to be fed, and school is unpredictable during bad weather. This is creating a disadvantage for an already disadvantaged population. It’s unattainable to sustain given the realities of raising a family independent of having a record, and the records we are counting are may or may not be violent.

She said women predominantly do not commit violent offenses – they commit drug and property offenses. Under H.R. 2, Barrow said SNAP is “limited to three months out of every three years to individuals who work less than 20 hours a week.”

“I think the biggest concern is that it’s creating generational poverty,” she said. “This is to me an extension of punishment, and it extends to the next generation. We already have ample evidence that children who are hungry or not nutritionally supported don’t do well in school. And school performance is highly collated with criminal behavior.”

She said it seems like a good idea, but politicians “are not thinking hard enough about the effects.”

“Honestly, would you rather spend a million dollars a year feeding people or incarcerating people,” Barrow asked, “because we going to spend the money regardless.”