Wednesday, March 7, 2018

From the CBPP: The Scoop on SNAP (February 23)

When members of Congress return to Washington on Monday, they’ll start a four-week sprint that may include introduction of the first major legislative threat to low-income assistance programs: the House version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill, which is renewed every five years, includes SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), our nation’s largest and most effective anti-hunger program. If the House Farm Bill—like the President’s budget proposal released last week—contains cuts to SNAP benefits and eligibility, nearly every type of SNAP participant could be hurt, including the elderly, individuals with disabilities, low-income working families with children, and those struggling to find work. Traditionally, Farm Bills are bipartisan efforts that do not pose serious threats to SNAP. However, we are concerned that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conaway has been making statements that suggest he is open to deep cuts in SNAP benefits.

The other concern is that SNAP cuts in the House Farm Bill could be the opening volley in a larger effort to take away food, housing, health care, and other basic necessities from people who are struggling, under the misleading banner of “workforce development.” In other words, more legislation with harmful cuts or changes to anti-poverty programs could be coming.

Everything you’ve been doing over the last several weeks—including the most recent work to generate strong and swift opposition to the cuts and changes proposed in the President’s budget—has been laying the groundwork for us to push back against and ultimately defeat legislative proposals such as SNAP cuts and harmful changes in the House Farm Bill.

We understand that some of you may be new to SNAP, so today’s Scoop provides more information on the program and what we’re worried about in the 2018 Farm Bill. We will provide additional resources in the coming weeks to help you prepare for and respond to the House Farm Bill release. For now, we suggest the following:

If you haven’t worked on SNAP before:
  • Get up to speed on SNAP using this issue of The Federal Scoop and CBPP’s Policy Basicsstate fact sheets, and talking points.
  • Reach out to food banks, food pantries, or other anti-hunger advocates in your state to find out what they are preparing for the Farm Bill and how you can become involved.
If you’re a longtime SNAP advocate (or after you’ve done the above):
  • Reach out to your House representatives and their staff to educate them about the importance of SNAP, the value of state options like categorical eligibility and time-limit waivers (more on those state options below), and your concerns about the possibility that the House Farm Bill could contain harmful cuts to SNAP. You can reference the SNAP proposals in the President’s budget as a “hook” for sharing your concerns.
  • Submit op-eds and letters to the editor in your local papers with the messages reflected in these talking points.
  • Create a rapid-response plan that you can deploy when the House Farm Bill comes out. For example, will you issue a press statement and share it with the press and on social media? Will you send an action alert to your email list encouraging them to call or email their representative? If appropriate, will you and your coalition send a letter to your senators laying out the problems with the House Farm Bill so they are informed and engaged to prevent the Senate from following suit?
Today’s Scoop also explains the other issues Congress could address in this four-week legislative period, including appropriations for non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs.
Lastly, for those of you who are counting the weeks, that means Congress will be home for recess again March 24–April 8. Mark your calendars for this critical two-week recess period! As you know, that’s a prime time to request in-district meetings with your members of Congress and their staff, hold or attend public events, and secure earned media.
Louisa, Victoria, Deborah & the CBPP Team
As a reminder, the information in these Scoop emails is meant only for you and other state-based advocates who work on these issues. Please do not share or forward these emails to press or any legislative staff.

Today’s Scoop

A primer on SNAP and the Farm Bill

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program. In a typical month in 2017, SNAP helped more than 40 million low-income Americans pay for their groceries and afford a nutritionally adequate diet. (See our state fact sheets to find out how many people it helped in your state.)
The most important thing to know is that SNAP works. As we lay out in our recent talking points, SNAP fights poverty and is good for the economy and public health. To dive into more detail on SNAP, check out CBPP’s SNAP Policy Basics and our updated chartbook.
SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that is renewed (aka “reauthorized”) every five years. Spending on SNAP and other nutrition programs makes up approximately 80 percent of the Farm Bill. The rest of the Farm Bill includes food and agriculture programs such as crop insurance and subsidies and rural development. To learn more about the Farm Bill, we recommend this Farm Bill primer from the Food Research & Action Center.
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Tentative timing and process for the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill needs to be reauthorized by September 30, 2018. In the last few Farm Bill cycles, the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the Farm Bill (which are written by the respective Agriculture Committees). Then the House and Senate must come together to reconcile their differences and pass one identical version. We expect the same process to play out this year, with the House Agriculture Committee moving first with their version.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas has said he intends to introduce the House version of the Farm Bill in the next few weeks. He hopes the Farm Bill would come up for a full House vote before the next congressional recess, which begins on March 24, but the timing of the floor vote may slip until April. The Senate Agriculture Committee has not specified a detailed timeline, but we anticipate that they would not introduce their version of the Farm Bill before late spring or early summer. Of course, as with most predictions in Congress, this timing is subject to change.
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What to watch in the 2018 House Farm Bill

We are concerned that the House Farm Bill could include some of the SNAP cuts in the President’s budget. While we do not believe the Farm Bill will include the ridiculed “Blue Apron” proposal in which the government provides SNAP participants with boxes of groceries, we are concerned that the House Farm Bill could include some of the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to benefits and eligibility. Our paper on the SNAP proposals in the President’s budget is a comprehensive resource for what to watch. In today’s Scoop, we wanted to flag three specific issues.
1. Expanding the three-month time limit for SNAP participants without minor children and making it harsher. Under current law, SNAP participants between the ages of 18 to 49 who are not raising minor children cannot receive benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period unless they work 20 hours a week. Some call this provision a work requirement, but “time limit” is more accurate because the provision does nothing to help someone get or keep a job; it just takes away their food assistance after a certain amount of time. The President’s budget would make two notable changes to the time limit, which we worry could also appear in the House Farm Bill:
  • Raise the maximum age for those facing the time limit to 62, which would expose 2 million more individuals to the limits, including older Americans who face additional obstacles to work.
  • Make it harder for states to exempt people from the time limit, such as those in areas with high unemployment or those who lack a high school diploma or face other high barriers to employment.
2. Eliminating a state option that protects poor working families, seniors, and people with disabilities from abruptly losing most or all of their SNAP benefits when they slightly improve their financial situations. The President’s budget would eliminate a state option known as “categorical eligibility,” which allows states to adjust income cutoffs and asset limits so that working families don’t abruptly lose much of their SNAP benefits when they earn slightly more. Allowing states to adjust the asset limit also helps seniors and people with disabilities by removing the savings disincentive in SNAP. If this option were eliminated, households could lose their food assistance if they saved more than the federal limit ($3,500 for households with an elderly member or person with a disability, $2,250 for other households).
3. Making additional benefit cuts that would affect working families and seniors. Chairman Conaway has not made his plans clear, and he routinely describes his goals on the Farm Bill as working towards the best “policy,” as opposed to achieving a budget target. We are honestly in a tea leaf-reading situation here: We worry that this framing means he may take some of the savings from benefit cuts and reinvest it in other SNAP policies. Taking away food assistance from the unemployed, working families, and seniors is not the way to pay for improvements in SNAP.
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Other issues Congress will work on in February and March

We are watching three other issues that Congress is likely to work on in the next four weeks, before the March 24–April 8 recess:

1. Implementation of the recent budget deal on Fiscal Year 2018 discretionary spending. Remember, the budget deal reached earlier this month only set the topline levels of spending for non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs, which includes important services and investments such as schools, child care assistance, rental assistance, water treatment plant construction, police and fire departments, and much more. Now Congress must write a 2018 omnibus appropriations bill to specify funding levels for individual programs. The current deadline for that omnibus appropriations bill is March 23. To learn more, read our blog roundup about funding priorities and an explanation of how the appropriations process and budget deal relate to the President’s budget released last week.

2. Negotiations to stabilize health insurance markets. As you may recall, Senate Majority Leader McConnell promised Sen. Collins (R-ME) that the Senate would pass two Affordable Care Act (ACA) market stabilization proposals based on the Alexander-Murray legislation to address cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers and the Collins-Nelson reinsurance proposal, in exchange for Collins’ support of the tax bill. Those proposals are expected to be included in the omnibus appropriations package that Congress is working to pass by the March 23rd deadline. We are watching carefully to help ensure that no harmful changes to the ACA or harmful health offsets are added. To learn more, read our recent blog posts about the Alexander-Murray plan and funding for state reinsurance programs.

3. House committee hearings on the opioid crisis. Starting next week in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House will hold legislative hearings aimed at crafting legislation to address the opioid crisis. The Wall Street Journal reports that two additional hearings will be held in March and the House is trying to pass legislation by the end of May. Bipartisan action on the opioid epidemic could be promising, but we’ll have to watch out for harmful offsets or other negative health care proposals that could latch onto the legislation.

Another hearing we’ll be watching next week is a subcommittee hearing titled “Strengthening Access and Accountability to Work in Welfare Programs.” This hearing could be the start of an effort by House leaders to lay the groundwork for a “workforce development” bill that would take away basic assistance from people in need instead of helping people find and keep a good-paying job.

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