Georgia lawmakers on opposite sides of D.C. food stamp impasse

Georgia has gradually rolled out work requirement changes to the food stamp program over the past two years.

Georgia has gradually rolled out work requirement changes to the food stamp program over the past two years.

Georgia’s lawmakers on Capitol Hill are staking out opposing positions in the mushrooming battle over food stamps, contributing to a partisan impasse that threatens to stall one of the last major pieces of legislation Congress must pass this year.

At the heart of the disagreement is a proposal that would boost work and job training requirements under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The fracas could delay the rollout of the upcoming farm policy bill, which would renew nutrition, rural development and crop subsidy programs. Authorization of the feds’ constellation of agriculture programs expires Sept. 30.

Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee are planning to unveil a new farm bill in the weeks ahead that would expand the number of able-bodied adults who would be required to work to receive SNAP benefits for an extended period and boost job training for recipients, according to Bloomberg.

Democrats say the proposal is a nonstarter — they say the changes would push millions off the rolls — and that Republicans have not been forthcoming about the changes. They recently abandoned negotiations over the bill, and the GOP chairman of the House Agriculture panel announced his intention to move forward without them.

The three Georgia lawmakers on the committee are backing their respective parties in the fight.

U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta, the No. 2 Democrat on the committee, co-wrote a letter last month urging the panel’s top Democrat to halt negotiations. He said in a recent interview that there was “absolutely” a racial component to the SNAP changes and that the GOP’s proposal was “mean-spirited.”

“I guarantee you, if all the people who were on food stamps were white, there wouldn’t be this,” he said. “Race is at the bottom of this. It is at the top of this. And it has always been.”

Georgia Republicans disagree with their colleague’s assessment. They say they aren’t targeting any specific race and that they’re making reasonable changes that will help safeguard the financial solvency of the entitlement program.

“It’s important that any system that we have maintains integrity in order to have the support of the public,” said Tifton Republican U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, also a member of the committee. “We are doing the people who need the nutritional assistance a disservice by allowing people who are able-bodied working-age to stay on the system if they won’t even try to get a job.”

The legislation would also reportedly increase the amount of money SNAP recipients can have stashed away in savings accounts and the value of the car they can own and still receive benefits.

Austin Scott said such changes are positive ones since they would give families reliant on food stamps more room to get on their feet and eventually graduate from the program.

The legislation would offer “tremendous benefits to people who are doing the best they can, who are putting in the effort, who would like the ability to save at least a little bit of money for a rainy day,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans, said he supports his party’s proposed changes and that they would give people “opportunities to make decisions for themselves.”

“We’ve got able-bodied people who just need to know a way out” of dependency on government programs, he said. “I want to show them a way out.”

David Scott countered that the proposed changes are “demeaning.”

SNAP is by far the largest program in the farm bill — it accounts for roughly three-quarters of the measure’s spending — and the GOP has long sought to make major structural changes to it to cut down on costs.

A similar fight over food stamps helped bring the last farm bill screeching to a halt in 2012, delaying its passage by nearly two years.

Many states, meanwhile, have made their own changes to the program.

Georgia has gradually rolled out work requirement changes to its food stamp program over the past two years. The changes have been implemented in two-dozen counties, including several in metro Atlanta, and the state plans to incorporate all 159 counties by 2019.

Republicans’ latest efforts on Capitol Hill mirror recent changes floated by the Trump administration.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, has indicated it's open to making changes to how it administers the program. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said food stamps should be a "transition for people who are in a tough situation," not a permanent condition.

A Perdue proposal to swap some food stamp money with a "harvest box" of federally selected foods was widely panned.

Congress has provided no indications that it plans to follow through with such boxes, but the broader food stamp fight could be enough to delay the farm bill’s consideration for months. The politics are different in the Senate, where Republican leaders must woo at least nine Democrats to move their version of the measure through the chamber.

It’s possible lawmakers will pass a short-term patch and revisit the issue after the midterm elections.

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