News Briefs

GOP congressman advocates expansion of work requirements for federal food aid

By: - March 15, 2023 10:18 am

Republican South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at expanding work requirements for federal nutrition aid (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON — Republican South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at expanding work requirements for federal nutrition aid, reigniting a perennial conflict over how Congress navigates both the farm bill and federal spending.

“Work is the best pathway out of poverty,” Johnson, who in his home state has talked about growing up poor, said in a Tuesday statement. “Work requirements have proven to be effective, and people who can work should work. With more than 11 million open jobs, there are plenty of opportunities for SNAP recipients to escape poverty and build a better life.”

Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, is one of the co-sponsors of the bill. The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature is also considering legislation to impose an asset test for SNAP eligibility.

The America Works Act of 2023, if passed, would require able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 through 65 to work or participate in a work training or education program for at least 20 hours per week to receive continuous support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

As of now, that work requirement only applies to able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 through 49.

If SNAP recipients under current law do not meet these work requirements, they are only eligible to receive nutrition benefits for three months over the course of three years. This SNAP “time limit” was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, but will return in May when the White House announces the end of the public health emergency. 

If passed, Johnson’s bill would affect the roughly 1.36 million able-bodied adults enrolled in SNAP that reported zero dollars in gross income in 2020, according to pre-pandemic data cited by Johnson.

Average monthly SNAP benefits per enrollee in 2022 were roughly $230, or just over $7 per day, including emergency pandemic nutrition benefits. The total cost of all SNAP benefits administered in 2022 was roughly $149 billion.

Johnson’s legislation would also remove states’ ability to request a waiver for the work requirement from the Department of Agriculture if states lack enough available jobs to hire enrollees. In the Tuesday release, Johnson’s team said the change would close this “loophole” that many states “abuse” to get out of SNAP work requirements.

The bill would not affect states that request work requirement waivers because they have a 10% or greater unemployment rate.

The bill comes after contentious congressional hearings on updates to the Thrifty Food Plan, one of four food plans the USDA develops to estimate the cost of a healthy diet. The plan is directly tied to SNAP benefit allocations.

The USDA updated the plan in 2021, after receiving authorization to do so in the 2018 farm bill. The adjusted Thrifty Food Plan, which went into effect in 2021, boosted SNAP allocations by an average of 40 cents per meal for every enrollee. 

Republicans in Congress note that the changes are expected to add $250 billion in costs to the program between 2023 and 2031. 

Congressional Democrats, in contrast, argue that the elevated numbers represent an overdue improvement to the program, especially with pandemic-era food assistance expiring in 32 states and for more than 30 million people this month. 

The extra pandemic funding, which has been in place for the last three years, has provided low-income households on SNAP with another roughly $95 per month, on average. Individual SNAP recipients have received a boost of $90 per month, on average.

“We remain unified in opposition to any cuts to SNAP or the nutrition title and to any further restrictions on beneficiaries,” wrote Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut in a letter to the House Budget Committee on Tuesday, which was co-signed by all Democratic House Agriculture Committee members.

“We agree that additional resources are necessary to further improve our already strong anti-hunger safety net. A robust nutrition title is key to enacting a bipartisan Farm Bill this year.”

Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Alma Adams of North Carolina introduced a bill on March 10 with 19 co-sponsors which would remove the time limit entirely for able-bodied adults without dependents.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, serves more than 40 million enrollees and is projected to cost roughly $127 billion in 2023. The program will see a $22 billion drop in total expenditures this year as pandemic nutrition benefits expire. 

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Adam Goldstein
Adam Goldstein

Adam Goldstein is the D.C. Bureau intern for States Newsroom. Goldstein is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, studying digital reporting. He is originally from San Francisco, and loves swimming, cooking, and the San Francisco 49ers.