The Heritage Foundation challenged House Republicans' proposed reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in a new report, arguing that the bill doesn't go far enough in getting Americans back to work.
Introduced with the 2018 agriculture bill, the reforms establish an expanded work requirement for SNAP recipients. Under new rules, able-bodied SNAP recipients who are between ages 18 and 59 and who do not have a dependent under six would be obliged to spend 20 hours a week working, training, or looking for work.
Using survey data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Heritage estimated that of the 15.2 million able-bodied adults currently on the SNAP rolls, only 2.1 million will go to work under reforms. That estimate is substantial lower than that found by others: the Free Beacon's analysis of statistics published by the Foundation for Government Accountability estimated that at least 4.5 million will need to work, the FGA itself found 7.8 million using the same data as Heritage, while the Congressional Budget Office predicted between 5 and 7 million would be added.
The discrepancy between these estimates and Heritage's estimate is in large part due to the Heritage report's argument that state-level waivers for SNAP will persist more or less unchanged after the bill is passed, as well as the report's assumption that states will take maximal advantage of the 15 percent discretionary exemption they are afforded.
The state-level waivers permit states to exempt some or all of their citizens from work requirements. Currently, 36 states and territories have some level of waiver, including eight that are wholly exempted. Heritage argues that the waiver reforms in the farm bill would not substantially alter the status quo. The report calls for cutting the fifteen percent exemption to five percent, as well as several changes to waiver rules, which it suggests would limit the number of exemptions.
Heritage's analysis does not line up with the expectations of government officials. A spokesperson for the House Agriculture Committee suggested that Heritage was "confused," and that 60 percent of waivers would be cut under the farm bill.
In addition to suggesting the bill does not go far enough in its work requirements, Heritage's analysis attacks the SNAP reforms as being insufficiently pro-marriage. Noting that marriage rates are strongly related to poverty, the brief attacks the reforms for disproportionately exposing married parents to work requirements as compared to the unmarried and childless. Forty percent of all married parents would be subject to work requirements, Heritage estimates, while only 20 percent of unmarried parents and childless adults would be similarly subject.
This percentagewise disparity masks a different disparity in absolute terms between the married and unmarried populations. Under the farm bill, Heritage estimates that 1.1 million new childless adults and 600,000 unmarried parents would be subject to work requirements, compared to just 300,000 married parents. In other words: Forty percent of married families would be subject to work requirements because there are fewer married families on SNAP overall.
The Heritage report is the latest criticism of the farm bill from the right. Organizations like Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action, Heritage's lobbying arm, have attacked the bill in toto for both the SNAP provisions and for perceived issues with the bill's approach to commodity programs and crop insurance. (Heritage Action did not return requests for comment on its criticisms of the farm bill.)
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R., Tenn.), a member of the Agriculture Committee and the House Freedom Caucus, thinks that these concerns are misguided. Speaking to the Free Beacon last week, DesJarlais described the bill's various reforms as "a great start," and the expanded work requirement as an "innovative idea."
Pointing to his exceptionally high rating from Heritage Action, DesJarlais said that he understood the right's concerns, but that the bill itself is substantially better than the status quo.
"I understand their need for perfection. In this case, there's 12 million Americans that can benefit from this work training and work requirement. It's a large number, it has significant financial impact. I get it, you can always chase the perfect here in Washington, but I think this is really good," he said.
DesJarlais's office responded to a request for comment on Heritage's new report by noting that the Heritage report agreed with DesJarlais and his colleagues that "H.R. 2 includes many of its recommendations and would be a big improvement on the status quo."
The farm bill is expected to go to the House floor later this week. When speaking to the Free Beacon, DesJarlais expected that many of his House Freedom Caucus colleagues would eventually back the bill, saying that, "half if not most of [them] are planning to vote in favor of the bill because of the work reforms that are in place." The conservative group's support is likely to help House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas) drag the bill over the 218-vote line.