Anti-poverty groups and progressives blast work requirements for aid to poor Americans in debt ceiling deal

‘We shouldn’t be playing politics with programs that help Americans meet their basic needs’

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 01 June 2023 06:52 EDT
Kevin McCarthy suggests children should 'get a job' to give them 'worth and value'

An agreement to raise the debt ceiling would expand the age bracket for eligibility for food assistance, adding a punitive and unnecessary barrier for poor Americans with only negligible savings for the federal government, advocacy groups have warned.

Most Americans with low or no incomes who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) must comply with certain work requirements to be eligible to receive funds to help pay for groceries. But under a deal struck between President Joe Biden and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, adults up to age 54 would be required to show proof of work.

Republican lawmakers have pushed for years to expand those work requirements, but anti-poverty advocacy groups and progressives have argued that adding any such limitations to critical aid will only deepen hunger and poverty in the US, pointing to Congress’ own research showing that work requirements don’t appear to have any measurable effect on employment.

“SNAP is a symptom of shortcomings in the economy,” Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement. “Cutting off food for people unless they document sufficient hours of work does not improve their chances to secure family-sustaining wages, but does increase their food hardship.”

In simple terms, a congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling would allow the US Department of Treasury to continue borrowing money to pay the country’s bills. But Republican lawmakers have leveraged the often routine though critical vote process to advance their agenda, as the nation stares down an imminent deadline that risks putting the US in default.

“While we all recognize the catastrophic impact of a default, we are deeply disappointed that this deal includes cuts that further harm people experiencing hunger and poverty,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign.

“As a whole, the punitive and ineffective SNAP changes included in this bill will save the US very little money,” she added. “They will also do nothing to remove barriers to make employment more attainable or available for those they impact. Nor are they based on evidence or experience. Instead, they are born from and rely on pervasive myths and misperceptions about SNAP and the people who benefit from the program and stand only to restrict food assistance for some Americans.”

Republicans hold a fragile majority in the House of Representatives, where Mr McCarthy is relying on a slim margin of support from a far-right caucus that argues the cuts don’t go far enough. Meanwhile, progressive lawmakers – frustrated with the GOP’s “hostage crisis” process for negotiating a debt deal – strenuously object to stiffening work requirements and cuts to aid programs on which millions of Americans rely.

Democratic US Rep Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will not support the debt plan, pointing to members who are “deeply, deeply concerned” about the proposals and the way in which Republicans threatened to steer the US into default to get GOP concessions.

On a call with reporters on 30 May, Ms Jayapal compared Republicans’ threats on the debt limit to the party’s attempts to undermine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

“We cannot have these constitutional obligations, including the very clear mandate to pay the country’s debts, as well as of course to ratify an election of a president that was voted upon by the democratic process ... taken hostage,” she said.

The Biden administration has touted some new proposals in the deal as a victory: Military veterans, young people who have aged out of foster care, and people experiencing homelessness would be exempt from the SNAP work requirements.

But “burdensome reporting requirements and bureaucratic red tape leave little confidence that this will outweigh the harmful expansion of these requirements for others in this category,” Ms Davis said in a statement.

The nation’s largest food assistance program supported more than 42 million people in February, according to the latest data from the US Department of Agriculture. More than 65 per cent of SNAP recipients are in families with children, 36 per cent are in families with members who are older or disabled adults, and 41 per cent are in families that work, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

SNAP requires “able-bodied adults” without dependents to work or join job training programs for at least 80 hours a month to receive more than three months of benefits over three years.

“SNAP’s primary objective is to help people put food on the table; any attempt to turn it into an employment program – particularly when extensive research shows that work requirements actually make it much harder, not easier, for people to find and keep jobs – runs contrary to the program’s mission and intent,” said Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

“In a time when food insecurity is rising and food prices remain high, we should be expanding our nation’s social safety net, not restricting it,” he added.

The maximum monthly SNAP benefit for an individual is $281, “which makes the 80-hour work program route effectively the same as a job that pays $3.51 per hour,” or less than half the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25, People Policy Project’s Matt Bruenig noted.

Progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have also lambasted the debt deal for tying the fate of federal programmes for some of the poorest Americans to a politically volatile debate.

What happens for someone over 50 years old who is unable to work and is cut off from assistance? How can they navigate a difficult labour market rife with age discrimination? Anti-poverty advocates and critics of so-called “means-testing” structures around receiving government aid have argued that adding additional burdens for work requirements underscores their futility.

“We shouldn’t be playing politics with programs that help Americans meet their basic needs,” Ms Davis said.

Anti-hunger groups have also objected to other changes to other assistance programs for lower-income-earning Americans, including changes to a federal cash assistance program that House Republicans had previously threatened with drastic cuts.

“Hungry people cannot wait – but now they will need to wait even longer,” Mr Guardia said. “Our leaders should be creating pathways to progress, not pulling out the rug from those trying to get back on their feet.”

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