Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue fears the poor are addicted to free food. “Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream,” he wrote in an April 16 Fox News op-ed. “USDA’s goal is to help individuals and families move from SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps] back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty.”
That is also the goal of the 2018 Farm Bill that GOP members of the House Agriculture Committee sent to the full House on April 12. The bill’s “Workforce Solutions” provision would mandate that millions of people on SNAP work for their benefits. In exchange for about $150 to $185 a month in SNAP dollars, recipients would be required to spend 20 hours a week working a paid job, undergoing job training or participating in a government work program, such as picking up trash along highways. People who are disabled, pregnant, under 18 or over 59, or caretakers of children under 6 or incapacitated adults would be exempted. All others who fail to get with the program would be banned from food aid.
The Congressional Budget Office calculates that from 2019 to 2028, the new bureaucracy to administer this work-to eat initiative will cost $7.7 billion, a figure offset by a projected $9.2 billion reduction in SNAP benefits.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the bill’s work requirements “would likely do substantially more harm than good, fueling increases in hunger and poverty” and “leave substantial numbers of low-income people with various barriers to employment — such as very limited skills or mental health issues like depression — with neither earnings nor food assistance.”
Republican members of the Agriculture Committee have delivered predictable tough-love sermons about how Workforce Solutions would benefit the 1 in 8 Americans who depend on SNAP. Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said the bill offers those “who struggle every week to put food on the table” an “opportunity for a better way of life.” Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said SNAP recipients will now be free to “achieve the American Dream.” Rick Allen (R-Ga.) couldn’t be happier: “The greatest joy of my life has been affording others with the opportunity to provide for their family, community and nation through gainful employment.” And Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said the bill’s “focused accountability” sets a needed precedent: “It is imperative to require that able-bodied adults work in order to receive government assistance, not just in SNAP but all government programs.” (Indeed, on April 10, President Donald Trump signed “Reducing Poverty in America,” an executive order that gives people who get public aid, like Medicaid recipients, two choices: Work or lose your benefits.)
In addition to cutting SNAP by $9.2 billion (thereby helping the poor rise out of poverty), Reps. Conaway, Scott, Allen and Arrington are gung-ho about their farm bill for another reason. It addresses what Arrington calls an urgent “national security imperative” — America’s “fiber independence” — by filling “the gaping hole in the safety net for cotton” with $438 million in subsidies to owners of cotton plantations. Not coincidently, these congressmen represent four of the top cotton-producing congressional districts in the country. In the 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 election cycles, the four have so far filled their campaign chests with a total of $95,750 from the National Cotton Council and the Plains Cotton Growers.
Given that the Workforce Solutions program encourages public-private partnerships, it’s conceivable that, way down south in the land of cotton, SNAP beneficiaries may soon find themselves toiling in the fields of a lavishly subsidized industry with the grimmest historical associations.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.