House bill would cut food stamp spending through work requirements

Food stamps in Peach State

Average monthly food stamp beneficiaries in Georgia, by fiscal year

2008: 1,021,155

2009: 1,286,078

2010: 1,591,078

2011: 1,780,039

2012: 1,912,839

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians on food stamps would face new work requirements in order to keep their benefits under a U.S. House bill set for a vote Thursday.

Modeled after the welfare overhaul Congress approved in 1996, the bill is intended to trim about $40 billion from food stamp spending over the next 10 years. But if it passes, it must be merged with a U.S. Senate bill that includes $4 billion in minor trims.

Food stamp spending and participation have hit record highs in recent years, and about 1.95 million Georgians — or nearly one in five state residents — now receive benefits.

The growth has come as the economy lagged, and food stamp rolls are expected to decline in future years. But the Republican-proposed plan is designed to winnow the rolls quicker.

The bill would require able-bodied, working-age adults to work or be enrolled in job training for at least 20 hours a week in order to receive benefits for more than three months at a time. In 2011, 168,000 food stamp recipients in Georgia would have fit that criteria, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Work requirements typically apply to these people, but Georgia — like most states — has a federal waiver because of high unemployment. The House bill would get rid of the waivers, which apply to nondisabled people between the ages of 18 and 49.

The bill also would allow states to impose a work requirement on nearly all able-bodied adults, including those with children, while giving them a powerful incentive to do so: States would get to keep half the federal money they save from reducing food stamp spending. The states also could extend the applicable group to age 60.

Additionally, the bill would eliminate automatic food stamp eligibility for people who qualify for other forms of assistance and allow states to require applicants to pass a drug test.

Melissa Johnson, of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the proposal is picking on “the poorest of the poor” without funding new job-training programs to help keep them qualified if they cannot find work.

“If you want to get people financially independent, not using (food stamps), the area we need to focus on is getting people trained for the jobs that are available,” Johnson said.

Robert Rector, who helped craft the 1996 welfare overhaul and is now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said job-training money could come out of unspent training funds in the cash welfare Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Rector said he would have preferred that the House Bill mandate all states to impose the work requirements, rather than allow them to start on a trial basis.

“You don’t have to do this right away,” Rector said, “but over time (able-bodied adults) should be required to work or prepare for work or at least look for work in a supervised way as a condition for getting aid.”

Food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are a crucial lifeline to the poor and a hefty federal expense: $80 billion nationwide last year. And they are a divisive topic in Congress, where many Republicans are eager to save money and attach new strings to welfare spending, and most Democrats are fiercely critical of any cuts.

Food stamps typically are paired with farm subsidies in the five-year Farm Bill, creating a bipartisan urban-rural alliance that has provided the bills’ political sustenance. That shattered this year in the House, where conservatives sought large cuts to both food stamps and farm subsidies.

A combined Farm Bill failed to pass the House in June, when Democrats abandoned it after Republicans added food stamp work requirements on the floor. This week’s bill proposes bigger cuts to food stamps after the House passed a separate farm subsidy bill in July.

It’s unclear what would emerge from a conference committee with the Senate, which passed its own combined bill earlier this year making minimal changes to the food stamp program. The White House also threatened Wednesday to veto the House bill.

Republican U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton said he plans to vote for the bill.

“There are a tremendous number of people out there who work and receive the benefits, and I think those who are working and receive the benefits would continue to,” he said. “But those who have simply made a life out of making sure that they don’t go to work are the ones that really need to be removed from the system.”

U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said the bill is a sign of “callousness.”

“I could understand all of this if we would at the same time put an apparatus together, emphasize the jobs-training program, get skills out, get employers in,” he said. “But just to arbitrarily say, ‘Go get a job.’ They’re out there trying to get a job.”

If new work requirements go into effect in Georgia, they could apply to Nora Strickland, 54, of Austell. Strickland lost her job as a bank teller three years ago and has been unable to land a new job as she takes care of her five grandchildren.

Last year, she turned to food stamps for help. Strickland gets $974 a month, which she said lasts the six of them at least until the third week of every month. After that, she said, “you make do.”

She gets help with rent and utilities, as well as job-seeking assistance, from the Center for Family Resources, a Marietta nonprofit funded in part by federal grants.

But each application faces long odds and fierce competition, as Strickland finds that 20 years of customer service experience does not go as far as she would think.

“It is hard out here,” she said. “It’s hard to come by a job.”