Congress is in the middle of reauthorizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee has released its draft bill, but advocates in Maine say they’re worried that President Donald Trump may push for cuts or further conditions that could place a burden on low-income families.
The legislation coming out of the committee does not cut benefits, but would impose new work requirements. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without dependents are required to work at least part time. The bill would expand that up to age 59 and mandate that all recipients work or be in a job training program at least 20 hours a week.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District says it is part of the effort to help those on welfare move to full-time work so they can support their families.
“We want to be compassionate, with able-bodied adults who are working age to make sure they learn a skill, learn a trade or work,” he says.
Poliquin pushed for the expanded work requirements, and for a provision that would disqualify a parent from getting benefits if they fall behind on child support. He says the bill is crafted so that more money will be available for job training programs.
“Those dollars that are no longer used in the SNAP program are recycled back into job training for other individuals, so there are no cuts in the program,” he says.
The proposal would also establish a national database of food stamp recipients, which supporters say will help cut down on fraud cases in which benefits are drawn from more than one state. It also has a provision to encourage recipients to buy nutritious foods, but does not ban the purchase of sugary soda or junk foods.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District says she agrees with some of the proposals, but not all.
“I think more problematic is some of the restrictions for work requirements, often put on there when people are really between jobs, just being to be able to find a job. I think many of the restrictions are just impractical and kind of stigmatize people,” she says.
Pingree has served on the Agriculture Committee and is now a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the food stamp program. She says in the past, both parties have worked together to craft the reauthorization language, but says this year it was crafted only by Republican members of the committee, just as the president was proposing cuts and changes in requirements for the program in his budget.
“The Republicans who have been negotiating all along on the farm bill decided to take a stand on this, and then the president came out and said he was going to do more entitlement reform. I think in a way it is ideological for them and not practical,” she says.
Advocates for the poor are worried that the House Republican proposal is only the beginning of a process that could lead to restrictions on access to the program, tightening an eligibility standard that currently allows anyone who qualifies for any federal assistance program to automatically also qualify for food stamps. Many Mainers take advantage of the standard after becoming eligible for the low-income heating assistance program, or LIHEAP.
Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice is worried about the effect the proposed changes will have on poor Mainers.
“Any one of those so-called reforms by themselves would be devastating to Maine people, but together, they would be catastrophic,” she says.
Mainers received over a quarter of a billion dollars from SNAP last year and more than 14 percent of the state’s population got benefits. Every dollar spent on food purchases at some 1,600 food stores in the state generates another $1.70 in economic activity.
Hastedt says she is hopeful that the U.S. Senate will not go along with House Republican efforts to make changes in the food stamp program.