Recently, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed its harmful version of the farm bill, which governs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP is the nation’s most effective anti-hunger program, helping 1 in 9 Iowans — more than 70 percent of whom are in families with children — put food on the table. The bill is expected to reach the House floor in early this month.
The bill, which passed on a partisan basis, would take away or reduce SNAP benefits from many struggling Iowans, including parents raising kids, people with disabilities and older workers.
It would do so by cutting SNAP benefits by more than $17 billion and diverting much of that money to risky and woefully underfunded new work programs. Iowa, like all states, would have to create a massive reporting and paperwork system to track thousands of SNAP participants and their hours of employment or participation in work programs. Workers who can’t get enough hours would lose food assistance. People with physical or mental health conditions would be at risk of losing food assistance if they are unable to provide documentation they are exempt.
Iowa legislators this session failed to advance similar work requirements for programs, including SNAP — often called Food Assistance in Iowa — because enough lawmakers understood they were looking at high costs for questionable results at a time they already were struggling to balance the budget.
Everyone agrees it’s important to help people who can work get good-paying jobs. But there’s no reason to believe punishing people for being unemployed or underemployed by taking away food assistance will help them find a better job or find work faster.
In fact, the majority of SNAP participants in Iowa who can work already do. The problem is that they are often employed in needed but low-paying jobs that don’t offer enough hours or benefits to get by, such as nursing aides, home health care aides, maids and cooks.
SNAP actually helps keep workers such as these in the workforce by smoothing out variable income for those whose paychecks rise and fall as their hours change or who lose income in family crisis because they lack paid sick leave and other benefits. Work requirements punish low-wage workers for things that are out of their control, such as living in a community that just doesn’t have enough good jobs for everyone who wants one.
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The House bill also would repeal a state option Iowa adopted in 2010 to extend SNAP to working families whose incomes fall just above the regular eligibility cutoff. Essentially, the repeal would reinstate a benefits cliff. Families would lose SNAP benefits if household earnings rose even modestly above the limit, penalizing their efforts to get on their feet and get ahead.
The bill reflects a shortsighted approach contrary to Iowa’s economic interests. All Iowans reap the benefits of a healthy and educated workforce. When parents lose SNAP, it is harder for them to feed their kids. People who went hungry as kids are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to suffer long-term health problems such as obesity and heart disease.
The current House farm bill breaks a long history of bipartisan commitment to ensuring struggling families have enough to eat. A bipartisan approach that strengthens SNAP, not cuts it, is the right way forward.
• Anne Discher is executive director of Iowa’s Child and Family Policy Center.