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Meat back on the table, Iowa debate continues over hurdles for food assistance program
Opponents say ID verification and work requirements are too burdensome
DES MOINES — With meat purchases now back on the table, the debate at the Iowa Capitol over proposed additional restrictions on the food assistance program known as SNAP turned to more familiar territory: eligibility and work requirements.
Republican state lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that for the SNAP program — a joint operation of the state and federal governments — would require an extra layer of identity verification for recipients, require the state to examine records to ensure recipients are still eligible and require recipients to work at least 20 hours a week, with some exceptions.
Technically, the bill also still contains a provision that would limit SNAP users to only foods approved for the WIC program for expectant mothers — which would eliminate meat, fish, poultry, nuts and many cooking essentials. But Republicans say they plan to amend it and eliminate only candy and soda, except for zero-calorie sodas.
Despite that pledge to constrain the food restrictions, the proposal found plenty of detractors at its first legislative hearing at the Capitol.
Of the 40 organizations that are formally registered as either supporting or opposing the bill, 37 oppose the proposal while just three support it, according to state lobbying records. Opponents include food assistance and charity groups like food banks, parochial groups and health care organizations. The three supporters are groups that advocate for limited government and spending and lower taxes.
United Way of Iowa advocacy officer Dave Stone said the organization opposes the legislation because of “a number of provisions that will create additional barriers for eligible families who need these benefits.”
Cyndi Pederson, a lobbyist for the Iowa Food Bank Association, called the proposal for new testing of a SNAP recipients’ financial worth “very burdensome.” Pederson said Iowa Department of Health and Human Services Director Kelly Garcia has “done a good job reducing administrative burdens in the department and reducing the error rate in programs like SNAP.”
She also noted that Pennsylvania in 2015 ditched its asset test for SNAP after a three-year pilot program that saw administrative costs outweigh any reductions in spending: by eliminating the asset test, the state saved $3.5 million annually, state officials said according to news reports.
“Many states have moved away from an asset limit because it’s an administrative burden,” Pederson said.
Proponents of tighter restrictions on food assistance eligibility say the added measures are need to rein in program costs and ensure the people who are receiving the assistance are the ones who genuinely need it.
SNAP is funded by the federal government and jointly administered by the federal and state governments to individuals and families who meet income restrictions. Iowa’s share of the program’s administrative costs in the 2020 budget year was $22 million, and its average administrative costs of $27.84 per case per month was 18th-lowest among U.S. states, according to federal data.
House Republicans moved the SNAP bill just two days after approving $345 million in new state spending on private school financial aid, a program that has no income restrictions.
“The intention of this bill is to ensure Iowa’s welfare programs are sustainable and remain available for the Iowans who truly need them. These programs provide a necessary safety net for low-income Iowans, and the Legislature wants to make sure the Iowans receiving assistance from these programs are truly eligible,” Rep. Tom Jeneary, a Republican from Le Mars who ran the hearing, said in his emailed comments on the bill.
“This bill protects the taxpayer by codifying practices to authenticate identity of applicants and requiring verification information prior to enrollment,” Jeneary wrote. “This bill importantly requires Iowa’s welfare program eligibility processes to be merged into one single system that will verify all income information of applicants and make sure there is no fraud in the program.”
Iowa’s average monthly SNAP participation of roughly 279,000 in the 2022 budget year was the lowest since 2008, according to federal data.
Any legislation that would change Iowa’s SNAP program would require federal approval.
With the two Republicans on a three-member legislative panel signing off on the bill, House File 3 advanced to the full House health and human services committee.
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