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Sue Lani Madsen: Sensible reforms in the 2018 Farm Bill

Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A makeover is underway at the site of Expo ’74, to “update and improve Riverfront Park for the next generation.” The 2018 Farm Bill needs to do the same for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Like Riverfront Park, SNAP needs updating.

Over 60 percent of families receiving SNAP assistance already have at least one working adult in the household, according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Work requirements have been part of the SNAP program at various times since its inception, recognizing the mental and financial health benefits of holding a job. Ten pilot projects to test ways to increase workforce participation and job retention leading to self-sufficiency were part of the bipartisan 2014 Farm Bill signed by President Obama.

Work requirements have broad public support, according to a September 2017 poll by POLITICO and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 92 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Independents and 68 percent of Democrats favored work requirements for low-income, able-bodied adults without young children.

“Work requirements cut the time people spend on welfare programs in half, and under (the 2018 Farm Bill), we are investing in SNAP Employment and Training services so we can guarantee anyone who wants a slot to meet these requirements will have one,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

Candidate Lisa Brown expressed her concerns about extending work requirements in a statement on Thursday. “In Northeast Washington, which already experiences double-digit unemployment, a new requirement like this will likely force people to go hungry or move away,” she said.

Going hungry may be preferable to leaving home for those who can’t stomach the thought of moving out of the country. But being forced to move is a possibility without updating SNAP asset thresholds. Job retention and access to work opportunities in all but the most urban of areas requires having a reliable vehicle. The current allowance for the value of an owned vehicle is stalled at $4,650 per adult household member.

That doesn’t buy much in 2018. Many asset levels for determining eligibility haven’t been modernized since the 1970s, according to Jared Powell, spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers.

In 1974, factory price for a basic Ford F-100 1/2-ton pickup was $3,282. Today, the base price of a 2018 Ford F-150 is over $27,000.

The proposed legislation would raise the threshold to exclude the first $12,000 in value of one vehicle per licensed driver. That’s enough to allow for ownership of a decent car and the ability to get and keep a job. And updating the asset allowances to reflect four decades of inflation will make more people eligible for SNAP than under the old categorical eligibility process, according to McMorris Rodgers.

I forwarded the proposed requirements to a friend living in Odessa. She has a job, a disabled husband and two teenagers at home, and a disabled adult son nearby who needs help. An old car frequently under repair threatened both her budget and her ability to keep working. Relatives loaned her the money to purchase a reliable replacement, but that essential asset blocks her from receiving SNAP assistance as she struggles to keep the roof over an old house and the teenagers fed. Her response to the new guidelines – she was positively ecstatic, in all caps and exclamation points.

But there’s still a stigma to receiving help, and she’d rather remain as anonymous as it’s possible to be in a small community. Work requirements would be a step to removing that stigma.

Unfortunately, what was a bi-partisan agreement on the value of work four years ago is now a deadlocked partisan battle. The proposed requirement is for 20 hours per week of either paid employment or volunteer service. Republicans are pointing to the benefits to individuals and society of providing an on-ramp to workforce participation and a path to self-sufficiency. Democrats are playing up the danger of a big, bad bureaucracy failing to track work hours accurately and pushing people off the path.

USDA’s goal for the 2018 Farm Bill is to provide a “pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance.” It should have bipartisan support. Perhaps Congress can build on the common ground of 2014, when “work” wasn’t that kind of four-letter word.

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