clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Conservative lawmakers think cuts to food stamps won’t hurt anyone. Evidence says that’s wrong.

Activists Protest House Farm Bill Plan To Cut Food Assistance Program Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A conservative member of the House of Representatives has a proposal for how to help pay for Republicans’ tax cut plan: Slash food stamps and welfare spending by harshening eligibility requirements. The Heritage Foundation projects this proposal, put forward by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) of the House Freedom Caucus, could result in more than $200 billion in cuts over the next 10 years — the deepest cut to the social safety net since 1990s welfare reform.

The savings would come from millions of people being thrown off the rolls of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But the plan’s advocates promise it will be painless.

"If an individual leaves the SNAP program without getting a job, then they must either have not needed the benefits in the first place or have found another way of obtaining the benefits they need,” said Darin Miller, Jordan’s spokesperson, explaining the Congress member’s position. “Either way, we are saving money without hurting anyone."

It’s an extraordinary claim. Could the government really slash hundreds of billions of dollars from programs that help the neediest families without hurting anyone? Poverty experts, including former welfare reform advisers from Republican administrations, disagree — they argue that these harsher eligibility requirements will leave a sizable population of the most vulnerable Americans without a safety net.

“Let’s be clear, [Jordan] is talking about removing people from the rolls,” Luke Shaefer, a poverty expert with the University of Michigan, tells me. “The single thing we can be absolutely sure about with a bill like this is that is would increase hardship significantly for struggling families.”

The Freedom Caucus is pushing a proposal to find “savings” in assistance programs for the poor

“If people are getting help from the American taxpayers, there should be a work component,” Jordan tells me of what he calls a “commonsense” proposal. “You can get the welfare reform that’s going to help people — the right kind of policy — and oh, by the way, it’s going to save a lot of money.”

Jordan’s bill would make eligibility requirements stricter, tightening the window individuals have to find a job from three months to one month, increasing the number of hours they have to work per month from 80 hours to 100, and extending the requirements to able-bodied adults with dependents. There are already work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents for food stamps and temporary assistance in law, but states often waive those requirements when the economy is doing poorly, and reinstate them in healthier job markets, designed to offer stability during the ebbs and flows of the business cycle. Jordan’s plan would do away with those waivers — and with it any stability these programs offer during times of economic hardship.

For millions of Americans the food stamp and temporary assistance programs are the last resort. The majority of American adults receiving benefits live far below the poverty line, going in-and-out of low-paying jobs that have a lot of turnaround. Food stamp recipients are mostly children and elderly or disabled people; the number of able-bodied adults without dependents is slim, and not nearly enough to make up the numbers in savings that the projections for Jordan’s proposal indicate, making the stakes of these cuts incredibly high. This time, by likely cutting off adults with dependents, it could affect benefits allotted to families with children.

Under Jordan’s proposal, if adult recipients do not find a job, their benefits will be cut off after a month. The bill suggest states allocate money toward volunteering and job training opportunities to serve as a fail-safe in case people cannot find jobs, but doesn’t specifically put any money toward those efforts. Jordan has suggested allotting $500 million, which vastly underestimate the costs of such vocational programs.

“There is a sizable population that would, based on this scenario, likely be destitute,” James Ziliak, University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research director, said. “Arguably they already are.”

It’s true Jordan’s plan will save the government money, which conservatives see as an avenue to offset tax cuts and increases in defense spending, but it’s simply false that the savings would be painless.

“There is no way to get to that level of cuts without taking away assistance from the very needy,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

SNAP isn’t a program with much fraud, waste, or abuse. Instead, there is strong evidence that SNAP reduces food insecurity and improves health outcomes, especially among children — and especially when the economy takes a turn downward.

“The evidence shows that the program actually works,” Ziliak said. “Not all programs work. But SNAP actually is one of those that does what it is supposed to be doing.”

The authority Jordan cites for his plan don’t actually support his plan

Conservatives often cite states like Kansas, Maine, and Alabama as the golden case studies in favor of work requirements; all three states reinstated work requirements within the past five years as the economy began to stabilize.

Jordan’s team points to Alabama, which drove down the number food stamp recipients by 85 percent in 13 counties — a statistic that isn’t an indication of much other than the federal government spending less money. Jordan acknowledged that these statistics don’t indicate that people necessarily found jobs. He doesn’t have evidence that nobody was hurt.

So he cited the 2006 testimony from Ron Haskins, a George H.W. Bush welfare reform adviser who once spoke highly of the 1996 reforms to TANF — which added work requirements and fundamentally altered the funding structures of the program — for prompting a decline in the caseload.

But now, more than a decade later, Haskins said he doesn’t think those reforms should be pursued further: They didn’t work like they were supposed to and turned TANF into an ineffective program. After funding toward TANF was block-granted in 1996, giving states a lump sum of money to allocate as they saw need, states eventually stopped using the funding for the safety net programs and the benefits declined over the years, giving little reason to induce people to work; the program has served fewer and fewer families over the years.

“It doesn’t make sense to talk about expanding the work requirement,” Haskins told me of Jordan’s proposal. It would only complicate the eligibility standards, he said. “The best reform is to require block grants only be able to used for work support programs for low-income families ... [and] coordinate the work requirements across process.” Jordan’s bill doesn’t do either.

Asked what he thought of Haskins’s change in sentiment, Jordan was unfazed, and pulled a different annotated paper off his desk, reading aloud from a Foundation for Government Accountability report on Kansas.

“Since implementing work requirements and time limits, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps has dropped by 75 percent,” the report said. “Nearly 60 percent of those leaving food stamps found employment within 12 months and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent per year.”

Again, outside of correctly stating that the reform saved the government money, the figures in the Kansas report, along with others from Alabama and Maine, fail to stand up to basic scientific research standards. The report overstates the direct effects of the work policy by failing to take into account the number of SNAP recipients who already worked or would have worked regardless of the reimposed requirements. The report doesn’t factor in the food security that SNAP provides, and the range of reasons people may not be be able to work, like undiagnosed mental illness, or a criminal record that may make the job search challenging.

A closer look at conservative talking points shows big holes in the case for these kinds of reforms

Jordan’s bill goes farther than eligibility requirements have ever gone before. Not only does it tighten the time frame Americans can receive benefits without work to one month over three years, but it includes adults with children. Recipients with young children, under the age of six, would only be exempt if states deem child care inaccessible.

“If you want to reduce people from the roll, [Jordan’s bill] is a good way to do it,” Shaefer, of the University of Michigan, said. “If you want to increase hardship, especially for people with kids, this is a good way to do it. But if you want to increase work, I’m not sure.”

There is no clear evidence that backs up the claim that these reforms would leave the poorest Americans unscathed. And there isn’t direct evidence that work requirements actually boost work, and for the many people now cut off the rolls, there is no other safety net. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysts Dottie Rosenbaum and Ed Bolen put it this way:

The individuals whose SNAP was cut off lost about $5 a day, or $150 to $170 per person per month in SNAP benefits for purchasing food. Many of them worked in the year after losing benefits, but for some their wages were low enough that they could have continued to qualify for SNAP benefits, which could have helped them make ends meet. Some others with no earnings for some or all of the subsequent year may have had virtually no resources available for food after they were cut off SNAP.

CBPP did an audit of the reports on Maine and Kansas (the one Jordan cited), only to find that when actually taking into account the loss of SNAP benefits after the cut-off, the difference in income before and after reinstating the work requirements are much less stark than the 127 percent increase reported by FGA. The total resources (including earnings and SNAP benefits) available to SNAP participants who were cut off was 3 percent lower a year after the cut off.

The findings in this audit undermine many of the assumptions driving conservative welfare reform proposals. Rosenbaum and Bolen attribute the discrepancy to a basic research error on FGA’s part:

Instead of comparing the average work rates in each quarter for this population before and after the policy change, they report the share of individuals whose SNAP was ended after December 2013 who ever worked in a quarter over the following year. This captures typical movement in and out of the labor force — given that this group tends to work in high-turnover jobs, in any quarter some people lose jobs and some get new jobs, so the share that ever worked increases — rather than an isolated impact of the policy change.

In other words, there is no clear indication that reimposing the three-month time limit reduced poverty levels. While they did find some increase in wages, the slight differences aren’t necessarily because of the policy changes. As Rosenbaum and Bolen note, Kansas’s economy was getting better in 2014 when these work requirements were being reinstated.

Even Republican lawmakers cast doubt on whether such severe cuts work as good policy.

“I’ve been through the SNAP wars. It’s a painful process,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the former chair of the Agriculture Committee, told the Huffington Post. “If you use [the Agriculture Committee] as a cash cow for something else, that won’t generate good policy.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.