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Congress Prepares A Lean Harvest For The Poor

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., emerges from the chamber just after key conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus helped to kill passage of the farm bill which had been a priority for GOP leaders, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, May 18, 2018. The 213-198 vote is an embarrassing blow to House Republican leaders, who had hoped to tout its new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., emerges from the chamber just after key conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus helped to kill passage of the farm bill which had been a priority for GOP leaders, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, May 18, 2018. The 213-198 vote is an embarrassing blow to House Republican leaders, who had hoped to tout its new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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If we lived in a rational world, the farm bill Congress is drafting would eliminate the corporate welfare shoveled into Big Ag. It would redirect some of the savings to support healthy food farms, farmers markets, and their accompanying jobs.

Instead, our elected representatives are planning to put impoverished Americans on a starvation diet.

They won't say that, of course. But that would be the effect of their plan to impose work requirements on recipients of food stamps, which are part of the farm bill. Combined with a separate measure that would continue playing Scrooge with the main cash welfare program, the farm bill is setting up a fallow eating season for the needy, unless voters flood congressional email and town halls with demands for better treatment.

In theory, work requirements for social programs like food stamps (officially, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) are defensible, such that Bill Clinton’s administration imposed them on many public assistance programs.

But the majority of working-age SNAP recipients already work. The reason they need SNAP is that they have low-paying jobs that can’t support a decent living. Meanwhile, two-thirds of recipients are children, elderly, or have disabilities, and therefore can’t work. Those working-age SNAP users who have neither children nor work face employment impediments, such as lack of education.

So the effect of tighter work requirements would be to eliminate or reduce benefits for about 2 million recipients, including children, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates. And keep in mind that the Republican-led House, which so far has balked at approving the agriculture bill, is hesitating not because the draft is miserly, but because ultra-right members couldn’t secure a separate, unrelated vote on tougher immigration enforcement. Big-hearted bunch, these guys.

Not that ideology is the sole root of pigheadedness. The reason that SNAP, an anti-poverty program, nestles in the farm bill, to begin with, owes to clashing regional priorities in a continental nation. In the 1970s, Congress folded the program into ag legislation to entice urban lawmakers into supporting the rural-tilted farm bill.

At any rate, to be done right, work requirements cost money. You have to provide cash-strapped parents with financial aid for child care and transportation to jobs and pay bureaucrats to make sure they show up for those jobs. But this is not a Congress known for wanting to spend more on the poor. The CBO projects the House’s stalled ag bill would cut $17 billion from SNAP over a decade.

Then there’s the wrangling over the cash welfare program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). TANF is a legacy program, the Clinton-era successor to a New Deal initiative. Republicans’ rewrite (TANF, like the farm bill, needs to be reauthorized this fall) would target help to the neediest families.

So far, so good: States have played fast and loose with the program, diverting TANF dollars to non-poverty measures like private college grants benefitting affluent families. Oklahoma spent some money on marriage classes for middle-class folks. (No, I’m not making that up.)

But the GOP’s bill, while banning such nonsense, also keeps TANF funding at 1996’s level, when the program was created — and that’s not adjusted for inflation. That’s why the program has lost 40 percent of its real value during those two-plus decades.

So when libertarians, Trump supporters, and other pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps types insist that the poor need to help themselves, ask them this: How would you be faring if you hadn’t had a pay raise since 1996? (TANF generally requires recipients to work for their benefits.)

But then, as others have noted, our Republican president is hardly a man who pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He was born into privilege, which he ably squandered through serial bankruptcies. Yet he duped voters into thinking he was a gifted businessman.

Now he’s hoping to fool them into thinking he gives a whit about the poor. He signed an executive order demanding work requirements in more anti-poverty programs, titling it “Reducing Poverty in America,” even though work requirements have proven ineffective at doing that.

As with ag reform, fixing TANF is a missed opportunity. Trump and Congressional Republicans should experiment with substituting a basic cash grant, ample enough for life’s necessities, in place of our safety net bureaucracy (including SNAP).

Instead, their welfare reform mirrors their farm bill, the debate over which is an ugly food fight that would make Bluto Blutarsky proud.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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