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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (right) is leading the charge to make drastic cuts to the food stamp program. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Welfare Reform 2.0?

House Republicans are gearing up for massive food stamp cuts.

BY Cole Stangler

“This is so beyond the pale, even for these guys—and that’s saying a lot,” says Rep. Jim McGovern. “This is just red meat for the right-wing base and they don’t give a shit about the people they’re screwing in the process. And it’s just really sad.”

When the House voted on cutting $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as part of the farm bill in June, the legislation was narrowly rejected thanks to a coalition of Democrats opposed to the scope of the cuts and far-right Republicans who felt that the cuts didn’t go far enough. That vote jeopardized the future of the farm bill, an omnibus spending bill that typically funds both federal agricultural and nutrition programs.

In response to that defeat, House Republicans pressed forward by passing an agriculture-only version of the bill—with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insisting that SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, would be dealt with at a later date. Knowing that about 50 to 60 members of his party wanted more cuts to SNAP, Majority Leader Eric Cantor took up the task of crafting a SNAP-only portion of the bill. Now the Republican leadership is prepared to move that legislation to the floor, and a vote could come as early as Thursday. With roughly $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 would impose the most significant restrictions on food stamp eligibility since welfare reform in 1996.

“This is so beyond the pale, even for these guys—and that’s saying a lot,” says Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who has helped lead efforts to prevent food stamp cuts in the House. “This is just red meat for the right-wing base and they don’t give a shit about the people they’re screwing in the process. And it’s just really sad.”

About one in seven Americans, or roughly 48 million people, currently benefits from food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Cantor’s bill would eliminate eligibility for 3.8 million people next year, while the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates it would throw four million to six million people off the rolls. These proposed cuts would come in addition to the automatic benefit cuts scheduled to take effect in November, when the SNAP increases included in the 2009 stimulus package expire.

The roughly $40 billion in cuts come in two main forms. First, the new proposal includes the elimination of “categorical eligibility” offered by a majority of states. That option allows for households with gross incomes modestly above the SNAP eligibility requirement but disposable incomes below the federal poverty line to qualify for food stamps. Clamping down on “categorical eligibility” would also prevent about 200,000 children from qualifying for free school meals, since their eligibility for that program is linked to household eligibility for SNAP.

The bill, which was introduced Monday by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), would also encourage states to prohibit unemployed people from getting access to benefits by eliminating a crucial state waiver. Under existing law, unemployed childless adults between the ages of 18 and 50 have access to SNAP only three months out of every three years, unless they can enroll in a job training program. However, states are allowed to receive waivers exempting high unemployment areas from these requirements. The proposed bill would eliminate this waiver authority, with the stated goal of incentivizing recipients to find work.

“There’s not a lot available out there,” says McGovern. “So what happens if in three months time, after you’ve been looking, you’re in a state where there’s no work training programs or workplace programs because there’s no funding for any of that and you can’t find a job? You’re out of luck? That’s it? That’s the ballgame?”

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the GOP’s insistence that beneficiaries find work doesn’t seem to mesh with the party’s harsh criticism of the president’s economic policies. On the one hand, they claim jobs are scarce, Dean says, “yet here they are arguing that people are somehow avoiding work?”

Additional cuts come from restricting SNAP eligibility based on qualification for low-income heating assistance and from the so-called “Southerland” provision, named for Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). That proposal would incentivize states to drop food stamp assistance to households if the parents do not have a job or enroll in job training.        

Both the title and the apparent aim of the legislation harken back to the welfare reforms passed under a Republican-majority House and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”  restricted food stamp eligibility under the stated objective of encouraging the unemployed to find jobs.

Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on welfare, says her organization provided “technical assistance” to Cantor and to Southerland on reforming food stamps. She applauds some aspects of the current bill—for instance, the separation of agricultural and nutritional spending has long been a right-wing goal because it enables deeper cuts to the latter—but says it doesn’t go far enough.

“It moves the ball forward, but there needs to be a bigger reform, really,” Sheffield says. “The character of the program needs to be transformed from this one-way handout to a program that encourages self-sufficiency with a reform similar to that of the 1996 [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program.”

For Sheffield and likeminded opponents of welfare programs, the latest food stamps proposal is only one piece of a much larger project.

“When you look at food stamps, it really should be viewed in the context of the entire welfare system. It’s just one of a dozen programs that provide food assistance; it’s one of 80 federally-funded means-tested welfare programs. So there’s a large welfare system. The vast majority of programs don’t promote work, and so there’s a long ways to go in reforming welfare to where it should be.”

It remains unclear whether the House will actually pass the legislation. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday that the Democratic Caucus is prepared to vote against the proposal, and Jim McGovern said that he has had conversations with some Republicans who are hesitant to support the massive scope of cuts.  

Whether or not the bill passes, the House and Senate will likely go to conference over food stamps as part of larger negotiations over Department of Agricultural spending. The Senate already agreed to about $4 billion in cuts to SNAP in June. But if Cantor’s bill were to pass, it could embolden Republicans at the negotiating table to seek much larger cuts. 

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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