Thank goodness the Farm Bill failed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week. The House’s despicable bill to punish the poor fell victim to division and rancor among House Republicans—division mostly about another fraught issue: immigration.
The Farm Bill includes food stamps—SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—and the bill that failed would have punished poor families by imposing strict and punitive work requirements for the adults who qualify for SNAP—including millions of parents with children. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us: “In 2016, some 19 million children received SNAP each month, accounting for 44 percent of all SNAP participants.”
SNAP matters not only for individuals but also for public schools for two primary reasons. Twenty years after welfare reform utterly failed to end poverty, SNAP is among our society’s few remaining anti-poverty programs, and we know that school achievement and children’s life chances are closely correlated with poverty. In their stunning book, $2.00 a Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer document that in 2011, three million children were living in families with cash income totaling only $2.00 per person, per day. For such families in extreme poverty, Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that SNAP is the family’s lifeline. SNAP is also used to calculate eligibility for children to receive school breakfast and lunch. The punitive House Farm Bill would have made it more difficult for children to qualify for the school meals they count on.
The new work requirements prescribed in the, now defeated, House bill would have made parents of school age children ineligible for SNAP unless parents regularly documented they are working 20 hours every week. Parents of preschoolers were to have been protected from this requirement in the proposed law, but once children reached school age, their parents would have been affected. If a parent’s employer were to have cut her hours in one week to less than 20 or if she missed hours to take a child to the doctor, for example, reducing her hours below 20, she would have been cut off the program for a year. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains the new work requirements the House hoped to have imposed on SNAP recipients: “Parents would have to prove each month that they worked or were in job training 20 hours per week… About half of SNAP participants had at least one month in which they participated in SNAP but didn’t work at least 80 hours. Even among those who worked 20 hours per week over the year on average, more than one-quarter didn’t meet those requirements every month.”
Unless Congress can agree on a Farm Bill, SNAP will continue helping very poor families who qualify. That is why the collapse of the House version is such a positive development.
But thanks to the Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey, however, in the context of the Congressional debate about the Farm Bill, we can learn something about one of the sources of the focus of the House Freedom Caucus’s determination to add work requirements to seemingly every poverty program, from food stamps to Medicaid. Dewey describes a think tank that provides ideological grounding for far-right politicians in Congress and across the states to promote the idea that poverty programs ought to punish the poor out of poverty. Dewey reports that the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) presents politicians with, “proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment… (I)t has churned out a steady stream of infographics, opinion polls and first-person videos to promote its policies, many trumpeting a 2016 FGA study from Kansas that claimed the reinstatement of SNAP work requirements prompted thousands of unemployed Kansans to get jobs and more than doubled their average incomes.”
But there is something very wrong with FGA’s research. Dewey explains: “The study, while much promoted by Republicans, has been panned by both liberal and conservative economists for cherry-picking data. Among other issues, the paper only reports outcomes from former food-stamp recipients who found jobs after they lost benefits, said Jeffrey Grogger an applied microeconomist at the University of Chicago who has studied welfare. Grogger also said the paper failed to establish a direct relationship between the welfare policy changes and outcomes for recipients. Most welfare recipients obtain jobs and leave the program anyway, he said, regardless of work requirements. And he said the paper is at odds with the scientific literature that has largely found the rules do not greatly improve recipients’ incomes, and may even hurt them.”
The Foundation for Government Accountability is connected with a who’s who of right-wing ideologues. It is led by Tarren Bragdon, a former advisor to Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, and connected with Sam Brownback, who imposed work requirements on food stamps as governor of Kansas. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan is another acolyte: “At a meeting with Bragdon in May 2016, and in subsequent conversation, Ryan expressed interest in FGA’s work and research…. In January 2017, FGA hired its first federal lobbyist. One year later, Bragdon made a presentation to House GOP leaders on ‘how to successfully move people from welfare to work’ in programs such as SNAP.”
Dewey quotes Bragdon describing his organization’s mission: “Our approach is to really tackle one big issue: How to give more Americans the life-changing power of work, at both the state and federal level.”
The organization’s funders? One is Wisconsin’s libertarian Bradley Foundation, whose funding was instrumental in driving the establishment of the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee in the 1990s.
Following the practices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), FGA creates and distributes model bills ready to be adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country: “FGA developed model state legislation, dubbed the HOPE Act, which bars states from seeking federal waivers from SNAP’s work rules. The bill has been introduced in 16 states since 2016 and passed in Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin. FGA says elements of the bill have been adopted in 28 states total.”
The Foundation for Government Accountability operates a sophisticated communications strategy: “Bragdon said he is ‘proud’ of his group’s research, which he has pushed to get in front of as many lawmakers as possible. FGA specializes in slick policy one-pagers, which—with their color-coded headlines and catchy graphics—appear to bear a debt to Bragdon’s brother, Trevor, a behavioral scientist who has worked with FGA and specializes in ‘persuasive branding’ for conservative causes.”
The Foundation for Government Accountability and the politicians like Paul Ryan who subscribe to its views are libertarians. In a recent Washington Post piece, Greg Sargent described this kind of thinking : “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R. Wis.)… has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009, he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain ‘the morality of capitalism,’ which he described as ‘the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed.’… Ryan has long believed, as many libertarians do, that taxes and the safety net are paramount threats to individual liberty, both because redistribution is confiscation from the productive ‘makers’ and because… the safety net squelches individual initiative, turning them into ‘takers.’”
As Ryan and like-minded politicians across Congress and the state governments pursue such policies to punish those they consider takers, they ignore the realities of low-wage work—low pay, sporadic scheduling which workers cannot control, and the dearth of jobs in many places. They also seem oblivious to the impact on the children living in poor families. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein reported on the findings of a new report from Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University and Hilary Hoynes of the University of California at Berkeley: “The federal government now spends less than it did about 30 years ago on some of the country’s poorest children, the result of cuts to federal welfare programs… In 1990, the government spent about $8,700 on every child whose family took in no income from work. By 2015, accounting for inflation, it spent less than $7,000 on children from these impoverished families… Much of the drop was driven by cuts to direct welfare payment programs, which once went to 76 percent of poor families with children but now goes to 23 percent of them.” And additional federal dollars spent on child welfare are primarily from the Earned Income Tax Credit, an essential program that has raised many families out of poverty, but also a program which assists families where parents are already working and fails to serve the families of the nation’s most destitute children.
How can our politicians have missed the message from the schoolteachers who have been walking out all spring? Teachers have been telling us that poverty affects the children who fill their classes and also creates enormous challenges for their schools. Stein reminds us: “The U.S. spends less on children than almost any other developed nation… In 1995, America ranked ahead of nine developed nations in the share of the economy the federal government spends on children. Since 2004, America has ranked third-to-last in spending, with only Mexico and Turkey lagging behind, as other countries have increased their spending on family benefits.”
Years ago I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson profoundly assess the ethical implications of our society’s devotion to competition and rewards for individual initiative—saving a few strivers at the expense of the vulnerable: “There are those who make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” We like to talk about leaving no child behind, but as a society we lack any commitment to such an ethic.
Thank goodness the House Farm Bill was defeated due to political disarray in the House. Let’s work for the day when Congress will assume its moral responsibility for our most vulnerable children.