Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia L. Fudge on Wednesday challenged the Agriculture Department’s premise for a rule that would restrict food stamp benefits for some working poor, using as an example employees who clean Capitol Hill office buildings or serve lawmakers food in the cafeterias.
“Even this government doesn’t pay them enough to make a living,” said Fudge, who chairs the Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, at a hearing on a proposed USDA rule that would restrict states’ ability to issue waivers for some able-bodied adults without dependents from food stamp time limits and work requirements.
Fudge said the fact that many Capitol Hill employees work each day but remain poor should be sobering for those lawmakers who believe that employment means low-income people no longer need food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program.
The rule would apply to about 3 percent of the nearly 40 million people who receive SNAP. Currently, they can only receive three months of benefits every 36 months unless they meet work requirements or have their state exempt them from those requirements. They are often referred to as ABAWDs, an acronym for able-bodied adults without dependents.
The proposal, by the Agriculture Department’s own estimate, would cut SNAP benefits to 755,000 people and save $7.9 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2024. The public comment period on the rule ended Tuesday, but USDA announced that it will accept additional comments through April 10 because of technical problems.
Some witnesses at the hearing testified that the proposed rule would end SNAP benefits for a population that is generally low-skilled and the poorest of the poor who may have undiagnosed learning disabilities or mental illness that limit their job prospects.
The witnesses included Karen Cunnyngham of Mathematica Policy Research, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, and Jay Shambaugh of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project.
They said many of the recipients who would be affected work at low-wage jobs with hours that may vary from week to week. Cunnyngham said her research estimates that the proposed rule could affect 1 million people, more than the USDA estimate.
The committee also heard from a supporter of the rule.
“These waiver loopholes have trapped millions of able-bodied adults in dependency,” said Sam Adolphsen, the vice president of executive affairs at the Foundation for Government Accountability and a former chief operating officer for the Maine Health and Human Services Department. The foundation has pushed for stronger work requirements for SNAP at the federal and state level.
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Meaning of poverty
The hearing also served as a test for Democratic and Republican views on poverty.
Rep. Jahana Hayes recalled working two jobs and using food stamps to get through college.
“The reality is that very few ABAWD recipients of SNAP are not interested in working. Rather, they are desperately underemployed, undereducated or in low-wage work that is highly unstable,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Democrat, said a national unemployment rate below 4 percent or a low state unemployment rate does not mean that everyone has an opportunity to work, especially in rural areas of his district.
“The employment numbers don’t mean the same thing everywhere. So in northern New Jersey and you’re in the financial industry, that’s a whole different thing than if you are lifting cranberries down southwards. Jobs just aren’t as easy to come by as statistics show,” Van Drew said.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais agreed that Congress has a responsibility to aid people in need, but the Tennessee Republican added that people who can work should work to support themselves.
“You can be the group that wants to talk about successes or you can be the group that talks about failures. I want to be the group that talks about the successes,” DesJarlais said. “Some of the other witnesses have talked extensively about all the barriers for able-bodied adults going into the workforce.” He asked Adolphsen if the barriers are as bad as described.
“My experience at the agency was that was one of the things that was most disappointing. The whole system revolved around this point of view of what people can’t do,” Adolphsen said. “What we really need to do is to come at this from a point of view that these individuals are very capable. They can work and improve their skills and education.”
It fell to the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Dusty Johnson, to try to bridge differences on poverty.
The South Dakota Republican said he agreed with Fudge that low-wage workers at the Capitol “are worthy and they are deserving.″
“It is just as important to acknowledge that they are working and their work is important. It is worthy of our respect,” Johnson said, adding that “data can light our way forward.”