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Conaway sees farm bill work provision as ‘on-ramp’ to work security

Spencer Platt/Getty Images Food Stamps sign on store window
FIGHT AHEAD: A provision to strengthen the work requirement for SNAP recipients has resulted in a partisan deadlock on the 2018 Farm Bill advanced by the House Agriculture Committee.
A work provision in the House farm bill results in a partisan vote out of committee; the chairman defends it as a “leg up” for recipients.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, in a conference call with reporters this morning, defended stronger work requirements in the nutrition title of the farm bill, which passed out of committee on Wednesday.

Related: 2018 Farm Bill advances from House Agriculture Committee

He said the provision provides an “on-ramp” to work security that will help millions of poor Americans rise above poverty by helping them find good-paying, permanent jobs.

Conaway insisted that a block of money provided to each state will be adequate to set up the work requirement program and monitor compliance among the millions of Americans who depend on food stamp benefits to help feed themselves and their families.

States would be given $1 billion a year to pay for training and employment service programs, and to hire case workers to follow each food stamp recipient and monitor his or her compliance with work and other requirements. He said that would also enable states to eliminate any fraud or abuse of the program, and that states would get to “keep” 50% of any money realized from fraud elimination, provided they roll those funds back into the program.

“I think we have undersold what states are capable of doing,” Conaway said. “The states can work with any willing and able person to make sure they get the increase in skills they need for a permanent job. There are agencies in place for them to work through that are already funded. This doesn’t require creating a new bureaucracy.”

Democratic opponents of the bill express doubt that implementation would be easy and that funding for high-quality training programs and meeting bookkeeping requirements would be adequate.

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat and leading advocate for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has vowed an “all-out fight” against the bill. He says almost nothing in the bill reflects what he heard in the 23 hearings the committee held on SNAP.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says keeping track of the work hours of millions of people and getting them reported in a timely fashion would be a gigantic problem. Recipients who fail to meet the work or training requirement in any month would lose SNAP benefits for a full year. A second infraction would carry a three-year loss of benefits.

The CBPP expresses concern that for some recipients, a simple clerical error by a state agency would result in loss of help to pay for food. Also, recipients tend to be people who find work in temporary or part-time jobs. A cut in hours by an employer or a layoff would leave them scrambling to find alternate employment or get enrolled in a training program with an end-of-month deadline.

Conaway expressed disappointment that the bill was moved to the floor on a party-line vote and said the Democrats on the committee refused to participate or to offer amendments to improve the bill.

“I am still holding out hope that the misunderstanding and the misinformation will be cleared up, and we will get a bipartisan floor vote,” he said.

He said he sees an opportunity for businesses looking for workers to participate in the work or work training requirement by offering apprenticeships or on-the-job training for SNAP recipients, citing Goodwill as one of the businesses that is “excited about the opportunity” offered in the bill.

Conaway said there is no way of knowing how many current SNAP recipients would fall into the new work requirement program because records are kept on a state-by-state basis, and there is no federal reporting of numbers. But he estimated that between 5 million and 7 million people would meet the criteria of being able-bodied, between the ages of 18 and 59, and not caring for children under the age of 6.

Conaway said the requirement is all about creating opportunity, not punishing hungry people.

“With just a little bit of training, we can get those people into the workforce. We are seeing all kinds of companies hiring right now with the way the economy is growing. There are ‘now hiring’ signs in almost every window. People just need a few specific skills to be able to fill those jobs.”

He said “one big-box retailer” is investing $50 million in apprenticeships for veterans who want training to be able to take skilled building trades jobs, by way of offering an example of how private industry would also participate in the program.

He said the bill addresses the problem of a lack of transportation that keeps some adults from being able to work by increasing the value of a car that a recipient can own and still qualify for the program.

“The current limit is something like $4,600, and that’s pretty much a clunker,” Conaway said. “The bill raises that allowance to $12,000. That should enable people to have a reliable car.”

Other than the SNAP provision, there are few changes in the proposed farm bill from the 2014 law. One significant change would phase out the Conservation Stewardship Program and expand the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Current CSP contracts would be honored; there would just not be renewal of contracts or any new ones created.

Conaway conceded that does cut funding for conservation in total “somewhat” but cited the popularity of EQIP with farmers.

Related: What's in the House Agriculture Committee version of the farm bill?

The chairman said any money for helping farmers cope with loss of markets or drops in commodity prices from actions such as China’s 179% tariff on sorghum would have to be handled as part of a disaster bill.

“We don’t have new money for the Title 1 portion of the farm bill,” he said, “but Secretary [Sonny] Perdue has been given the authority to cope with this, and he has those resources.”

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