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Shawn Vestal: When it comes to budgets, bottom lines don’t lie

 (Nathanael Massey / The Spokesman-Review)

Budgets, people in politics like to say, are moral documents.

They reveal values clearly when the rhetoric doesn’t.

Which is why the proposed changes to the food-stamp program, in the context of the recent tax cuts, provides a bright, clear X-ray of current Congressional values: More for those with the most. Less for those with the least.

Dress it up however you like. Drape verbiage about reform and dignity over it. Say it just ain’t so. But bottom lines don’t lie: As the biggest banks in the country crowed about their tax-cut-fueled profits last week – with unexpectedly large windfalls at JPMorgan, Citigroup and Wells Fargo – the House of Representatives was uncorking a Farm Bill that would put fewer groceries in the cupboard for poor people.

The bill, which is still being ground into sausage in the Senate, would bring back work requirements for some SNAP beneficiaries that were lifted during the recession, and impose strict, quick penalties if they aren’t met (in ways that seem likely to punish SNAP recipients who already work). The bill budgets new money for “guaranteed” job training and other programs intended to make up the difference, which critics say falls short of the need.

“This doesn’t actually create any incentives for people to work,” said Misha Werschkul, executive director of the liberal Washington State Budget and Policy Center. “It creates huge new bureaucratic requirements for states, and it means more families who rely on food assistance today will be pushed into poverty.”

It would result in $20 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, and 2 million fewer people receiving help, according to the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities. About 119,000 Spokane County residents received SNAP assistance last year; it’s not clear exactly how these changes would play out here.

Supporters of the proposal, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, say it targets able-bodied adults without children who aren’t working and offers a dignified pathway into the workforce.

“Restoring work requirements to SNAP will help work-capable adults move off the sidelines and back into the work force,” she said in a statement.

‘Harsh’ changes

Christina Wong, the director of public policy for the statewide anti-hunger organization Northwest Harvest, said the proposal would impose “harsh” changes that would “primarily hurt working households with children and underpaid/underemployed individuals.”

All in all, she said, it would result in an estimated 13 billion fewer meals for Washingtonians in need over 10 years, according to an early state analysis. Provisions to offset some of the cuts with other programs would cover about 620 million meals, she said – about 5 percent of the total.

The SNAP proposal also would replace state-specific approaches with a single, heavy-handed, bureaucratic federal approach, critics say – a true irony, given the House majority’s propensity for talking in glowing terms about state flexibility and innovation. What that looks like in Washington and other states is the elimination of “categorical eligibility,” which allows states to modify the program to their own needs.

Washington has a higher eligibility level for SNAP, at 200 percent of the poverty level, as opposed to the federal standard of 135 percent. It also gradually reduces benefits as recipients earn more, rather than cutting them off abruptly. Officials say that this, in addition to the state’s streamlining of benefits and work training program, have made Washington a model for helping people go back to work.

About 20,000 Washington households get SNAP benefits under categorical eligibility now. It’s not a huge number, given that SNAP serves more than 500,000 households, but it’s a population that lives right on the line between work and welfare.

Work requirements are broadly popular. On the simple face of it, most of us would agree with the principle of working for the benefit – especially for adult men who are able to work and who don’t have children. Jared Powell, spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said the congresswoman met with food bank workers in Colville in March and talked about some of these ideas.

“The majority of people at that table who are dealing with SNAP every day asked her to work toward a work requirement or a volunteer requirement,” he said.

He said the congresswoman is trying to help the same people that those who oppose the idea are trying to help.

“That’s the reason she’s in Congress – to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves and the less fortunate. It really is a philosophical difference about how we achieve that.”

On the edge

But the devil is in the details, Wong and others said. The way this proposal is structured, it’s liable to actually hurt the people who are already working, given the inconsistent nature of their schedules.

One in eight Washingtonians receives a SNAP benefit. Of those, half are in working households. The large majority are in households with young children, elderly residents or a disabled person. Those who work are often in food service, home health care and other jobs that have changing, part-time or seasonable schedules.

For them, meeting a strict 20-hour weekly average, with the penalty of losing a year’s benefits if they don’t, could be challenging. If they slip, they aren’t slipping into the workforce.

“This bill would take food away from hungry families – take food off their tables and out of their refrigerators,” said Wong.

Also under the proposal, if SNAP recipients can’t find jobs, the proposal would guarantee them 20 hours of job training a week. Because of this, supporters insist that no one will be kicked off SNAP. However, Wong said the funding for such training is “woefully inadequate,” and the more likely result is that people will drop off the program not because they’ve gone to work but because they’ve been nudged out.

The result would be fewer SNAP recipients, not fewer people who need food.

Babs Roberts, the director of the community services division for the Department of Social and Health Services, said there are parts of the House proposal that she’s happy to see – some funding for job training in particular. But she says it would put a greater administrative burden on state officials, and eliminate much of a state’s ability to try to match the program to local needs and costs of living.

“There’s a lot of reduction in flexibility,” Roberts said.

Werschkul said the SNAP proposal would create a lot more red tape and bureaucracy due to its stepped-up requirements that states monitor the work requirements of recipients monthly.

Ironically, the strict regimen of oversight for work requirements as proposed – which would require states to monitor and report compliance monthly – seems mostly likely to result not in people moving into the workforce, but in the loss of benefits to SNAP recipients already working in part-time or seasonable work, where schedules can change frequently.

Asset cap

Supporters of this proposal have argued that it helps poor people by raising the asset limit allowed under the SNAP program. SNAP recipients qualify based on income, but there are limits on assets – such as a car – they can own under federal guidelines.

Washington doesn’t actually use that limit in calculating benefits – one way officials have tried to tailor the program to the state’s high cost of living on the West Side. In other words, the proposed federal replacement wouldn’t help here. If anything, it could make it harder for that hypothetical SNAP recipient who needs a good car.

It’s like so much of the current SNAP proposal. The details undercut the rhetoric.

“We all agree that if you are able to work you should work,” Wong said. “But at the end of the day, these policies will actually be undermining a lot of progress we’ve made in our state doing just that – helping people on SNAP get off SNAP.”

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