The House of Representatives rejected a sweeping piece of legislation Friday that, among other changes, would have imposed stricter work requirements on people who get help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, commonly known as the farm bill, failed on a 213-198 vote. A swath of conservative Republicans from the Freedom Caucus joined every House Democrat in opposition.
West Virginia Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins, all Republicans, voted in support of the bill. Mooney, a Freedom Caucus member, broke from the rest of the caucus with his vote.
Mooney said the SNAP changes spurred his support for the bill. He said that, because farmers work long hours to produce food for the nation, so should program recipients.
“I proudly voted in favor of H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, to support American farmers,” he said. “The federal Farm Bill follows West Virginia’s lead in enacting conservative reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ... . I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump to pass a Farm Bill that reforms these programs to get more people back into the workforce and providing for their families.”
To qualify under the bill for SNAP, which included benefits sometimes known as food stamps, able-bodied recipients between the ages of 18 and 59 who are not caring for a child under the age of 6 would either need to work or participate in a state-sponsored training program for 20 hours per week, starting in 2021. That requirement would increase to 25 hours per week in 2026. People who are pregnant, care for a disabled person, and anyone a state determines to be unable for “good cause” can be exempted, as well.
After the bill’s failure, Jenkins said it would have made “important investments in rural America while also shoring up assistance programs for those most in need” and “included much-needed investments in rural broadband and support for conservation programs and food research.”
“This bill ensured SNAP and food assistance are protected and preserved for those most in need, including seniors and individuals with disabilities, while also incentivizing work,” said Jenkins, who lost a bid for the Senate earlier this month. “Our country needs a farm bill, and I hope this legislation will be brought back up for a vote soon.”
A spokesman for McKinley said the congressman would not release a statement until the bill is reconsidered.
According to estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, by 2028, the bill would lower the SNAP caseload by about 1.2 million people in an average month, or about 3.7 percent of its total caseload.
Of those 1.2 million, 11 percent of the population that would no longer receive benefits would be able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents; 27 percent of them would be between 50 and 59 years old without dependents; and the other 62 percent would be adults between the ages of 18 and 59 who live in households with children. On average, those people would lose annual benefits of about $1,800.
The provision would reduce government spending on benefits by $9.2 billion between 2019 and 2028 and cost $7.7 billion in administrative costs, mostly to fund the training programs. However, the CBO estimated that most states would not be able to offer the training to all eligible recipients when the program kicked in in 2021, and only about 80 percent of them by 2028.
The bill also repealed “categorical eligibility” provisions, which automatically qualify people for SNAP benefits when they participate in other federal or state programs. It limited the eligibility to households whose gross monthly income is up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Current law has that figure at 200 percent. However, households with an elderly or disabled member would still be eligible under the 200 percent threshold.
The CBO estimated that about 400,000 households would lose SNAP eligibility as a result of the change. There also would be a downstream loss for children who qualify for free meals at school because of their SNAP eligibility, the office said.
“[The] CBO estimates that in an average year, about 265,000 children would lose access to free school meals under this provision,” the office’s report stated.
Current federal law imposes the work requirements on able-bodied working adults between the ages of 18 and 49, although it allows states to waive the requirements.
The West Virginia Legislature passed a bill this year, signed by Gov. Jim Justice, that wipes the state of this ability. However, under the new state law (which is based on the existing federal law), residents in certain economically depressed counties may continue to waive the work requirements until 2022.
About one in five West Virginians received SNAP benefits in 2017, according to data from WV Foodlink, a project of the Food Justice Laboratory at West Virginia University. Additionally, one in three children in the state received SNAP benefits.
Rest of the farm
Including SNAP, the farm bill was a behemoth piece of legislation that would affect conservation, land efforts, rural economic development, forestry and crop insurance.
In an interview before the vote’s rejection, state Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said he supported the bill at large.
Offering examples of how it would help West Virginia, he pointed to specialty-crop grants to help maple syrup producers in the state; money to aid his department’s efforts to bring fresh food to schools; land and water conservation efforts through the Natural Resources Conservation Service; and funds to combat invasive species, like the emerald ash borer insect and the multiflora rose bush.
He also said he expected, as the bill progressed, that lawmakers would add in language to either decriminalize hemp for industrial purposes or remove it from the federal definition of marijuana, and streamline the seed certification process. Hemp is legal for research purposes in West Virginia.
Regarding SNAP, Leonhardt said the work requirements and training would bolster workforce participation in the areas it applies to. However, he said, there could be stress on providers in food deserts in SNAP-dependent areas.
“There’s always a reason for concern if there’s no access to begin with,” he said. “That’s one of the things this office is working on very strongly is we’re trying to increase access in those rural, food desert markets.”
The net effect of the legislation would be positive, he said.
“It always can be better, but it’s not going to hurt West Virginia,” he said. “I think it’s going to help us.”