With voting along strict party lines, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed a 2018 Farm Bill out of committee last Wednesday, a bill which would add punitive work requirements curtailing families’ participation in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway has said he will bring the bill to the House floor for a vote in May. The bill would not only reduce families’ access to SNAP, but it would also limit students’ access to free school lunch and breakfast programs.
Marc Egan, Director of Government Relations for the National Education Association, sent a letter to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives last week to urge them to vote NO on this bill when it comes before the full House next month. Egan explains the implications for federally funded school meals: “This bill makes unnecessary changes to certification and eligibility requirements that could reduce the number of students eligible for free school meals… Children living in households that receive SNAP benefits are eligible to receive free school meals… Congress required all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to directly certify… (these) students for free school meals. H.R. 2 (the Farm Bill) undermines this important link in the 28 states that have chosen a broad based eligibility option under current SNAP rules…. (T)his would impact as many as 265,000 students nationwide. Direct certification for SNAP also provides the foundation for the Community Eligibility Provision, a hugely successful option that allows over 20,000 high poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to their students. The provision eliminates the need for schools to collect and process school meal applications…. Schools are eligible to implement community eligibility if at least 40 percent of their students are certified to receive free school meals without submitting an application. Community eligibility schools are reimbursed based on the poverty within the school.”
Egan concludes: “Reducing the number of students who are directly certified by changing the rules for categorical eligibility means that fewer schools will be eligible to implement community eligibility, and many schools that are eligible will find that it is no longer financially viable, because fewer of their meals would be reimbursed at the free rate.”
The House version of the Farm Bill would also directly reduce SNAP eligibility for families by adding a work requirement. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains: “Among its most significant proposals, the Chairman’s plan would impose new, nationwide mandatory work requirements on millions of SNAP participants. It would require SNAP participants ages 18 through 59 who are not disabled or raising a child under 6 to prove—every month—they they’re working at least 20 hours a week, participating in at least 20 hours a week in a work program, or a combination of the two. The typical individual who would be subject to the new requirements receives about $150 or $185 a month in SNAP benefits. Those who can’t comply would face harsh sanctions—the first failure would mean a loss of benefits for 12 months; each subsequent failure would lock individuals out of the program for 36 months.” CBPP adds that funding provided in the bill for training programs is insufficient to support SNAP recipients needing to work. Additionally, many workers in low income jobs cannot control their schedules and the number of hours they may be assigned to work each month; such jobs too often provide sporadic employment. A SNAP recipient who is working might lose SNAP due to a layoff or scheduling problem the worker cannot control.
Schools serving students in families who depend on SNAP benefits, especially the schools where a large percentage of students need free breakfast and lunch, are the very schools whose students face a mass of other challenges—children who are homeless, in the children’s services system, or in families with unstable employment. Such schools struggle, often without much of anyone’s noticing, when cuts in federal and state social services and health programs further stress the vulnerable families they serve.
Monday’s Washington Post featured Robert Samuels’ portrait of a Milwaukee family trying to survive in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin—an all-Red, tax slashing state that has modeled what Samuels describes as “the GOP model for ‘welfare reform.'” Samuels explains: “The way things are changing in Wisconsin—and around much of the country—is that lawmakers are embracing increasingly aggressive measures to move the poor out of the social safety net and into the workforce. In 2013, Wisconsin took a leading role in this trend when Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation requiring childless adults who aren’t disabled to work at least 20 hours a week to continue to qualify for food stamps. Those who didn’t do so were required to attend training programs scattered throughout the state until they could find a job. In February, the state took it a step further: Parents of school-age children will also have to work to receive food stamps. And instead of 20 hours, they must work at least 30. ‘We will help people when they are down and out,’ Walker said in his State of the State address in January. ‘But for those who are able, public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.'” The parents and two children in Samuels’ story are homeless and dependent on a car in need of major repairs. Both parents have worked sporadically, but struggle with desperation when a layoff occurs or the car breaks down and they cannot afford repairs.
Samuels reports that Wisconsin’s regulations limiting access to SNAP have increased desperation among Wisconsin’s poorest families: “State officials also said that more than 86,000 people have lost their ability to get food stamps and did not report getting new jobs. There’s been no government study examining what happened to them. State officials say they presume some got new jobs and didn’t bother to report them, but advocates say they see swelling numbers at churches and food pantries where more and more people go looking for help.”
In their startling 2015 book on America’s deepest poverty, sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer describe deepening poverty among our society’s poorest families: “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more, not only were these figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996—and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)
Edin and Shaefer also highlight the essential role of SNAP: “One piece of good news in these findings was that the government safety net was helping at least some households. When Shaefer added in SNAP as if it were cash—a problematic assumption because SNAP cannot legally be converted to cash, so it can’t be used to pay the light bill, the rent, or buy a bus pass—the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty fell by about half. This vital in-kind government program was clearly reaching many, though not all of the poorest of the poor. Even counting SNAP as cash, though, Shaefer found that the increase in the number of families with children living in $2-a-day poverty remained large—up 70 percent in fifteen years… A look at government data on those receiving SNAP revealed a large increase in the number of families with no other source of income. And reports from the nation’s public schools showed that more and more children were facing homelessness. Taken together, these findings seemed to confirm the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress made over the past three decades.” ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)
The Farm Bill coming out of the House Agricultural Committee will hurt poor children, their families, and their public schools. All this is why the National Education Association is asking its members to send its action alert asking members of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against the Farm Bill that was passed out of committee last week. You might also want to send NEA’s action alert to your Congressional representative.