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Congress created changes to food assistance. Here's what they mean

Jaqueline Benitez pushes her cart down an aisle as she shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Benitez, 21, who works as a preschool teacher, depends on California's SNAP benefits to help pay for food.
Allison Dinner
/
AP
Jaqueline Benitez pushes her cart down an aisle as she shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Benitez, 21, who works as a preschool teacher, depends on California's SNAP benefits to help pay for food.

Congress created some of the most significant revisions to the food stamp program in decades during an effort to prevent the country from defaulting on its loans Thursday night. Hunger advocates and lawmakers are still parsing through what these changes will mean for the nation's most vulnerable.

When the agreement details were made public, advocates on both sides say they were blindsided. Progressives hoped the Biden administration would fend off any attempts to increase work requirements for food stamps recipients. Republicans were looking for a policy geared at moving even more people off the program and into the workforce.

After weeks of negotiations, White House and Republican negotiators settled on a mixed bag when it came to food assistance: a change to the longtime program that would enact new work requirements for those ages 50 to 54 but would spare people from work requirements if they meet one of the following categories:

  • those experiencing homelessness of all ages
  • veterans of all ages
  • youth ages 18 to 24 who aged out of foster care
  • All of the changes are set to end in 2030.

    "If the goal is to minimize the impact of work requirements, it was a good response to the call for expanding the age range to trade that off by exempting some of the most vulnerable groups," said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who focuses on health care issues. "If at the end of the day, it's sort of a wash or maybe even an increase, that's a sort of damage minimization people could feel pretty happy about."

    In the end, Democrats joined Republicans in both chambers to pass the bill. But some Democrats, like Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who chairs the subcommittee on nutrition, didn't support the full proposal.

    "I did not agree to these SNAP restrictions, and I won't give Republicans an opening to try and take food from more food insecure Americans in Farm Bill negotiations later this year," Fetterman said in a statement after the Senate passed the bill. "That is why I voted no tonight."

    Meanwhile, Republican senators attempted to introduce amendments to increase the work requirements proposed or make them permanent.

    After the House passed the measure on Wednesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy vowed to get "more work requirements."

    The changes may end up costing the government more money than they save

    Republicans had the goal of reducing the number of recipients and cutting spending, but a Congressional Budget Office analysisreleased earlier this week found the measure may do the opposite.

    The CBO analysis found the changes would slightly increase the number of people in the program by .2% (or 78,000 people) due to the new exemptions.

    The findings also revealed something else unexpected: The changes to food stamps would actually increase federal spending by about $2.1 billion over the 2023 to 2033 period. That's because even with expanded work requirements for people ages 50-54, veterans and those experiencing homelessness are still exempt.

    The current work requirements limit able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18-50 to three months of SNAP benefits during any 36-month period when they cannot show they are employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.

    Republicans lobbying for the package quickly slammed the CBO for an allegedly "incorrect score."

    "Quite frankly CBO has their numbers wrong. They double-counted individuals," said House Agriculture Chairman G.T. Thompson during a call with reporters this week.

    Advocates worry expanded work requirements could harm older Americans

    The change to the age requirements for food assistance could affect about 750,000 adults, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

    Food and hunger groups have criticized the proposal since House Speaker Kevin McCarthy first unveiled it, saying it would force older Americans, who may be more likely to struggle to find a job, into a position where they could lose their benefits.

    Rep. Thompson argues that enacting work requirements on this age group would improve their employment chances. He says they would have access to education and career training benefits that are provided to SNAP recipients.

    "We give people an opportunity to reach a rung on the ladder of opportunity," he says, referring to the training programs as a part of SNAP, which he thinks will help older Americans improve their chances of finding a job.

    "The older you get, for a number of unfortunate reasons, when you lose your job, the harder it is to get a new job at that point in your lifetime. I don't think that's right," Thompson said.

    Republican negotiators and food security advocates find some common ground with expansions

    The new exemptions from work requirements have found a broad range of support.

    GOP negotiator Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina called these "sensible changes and updates to the law."

    Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Ind., told reporters she is particularly supportive of the changes for 18- to 24-year-olds who have aged out of foster care.

    "We are failing many of these kids," Houchin said. "Including a provision in this bill to provide support to them as they move into adulthood is the least we can do."

    White House negotiators said they expect the number of people on work requirements to stay about the same because of the trade-off between age increases and exemptions.

    Liza Lieberman, vice president of communications at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, is excited to see the changes made for veterans, but she warns that the expiration of the policy in 2030 could bring a sharp drop in benefits or other unwelcome changes.

    "More people getting food assistance is a good thing," Lieberman said. "But it feels like it's illustrating the arbitrary nature of the time limits because it is playing a numbers game."

    Lieberman, like some advocates and lawmakers, also would have preferred the debate over SNAP work requirements to play out during negotiations for the farm bill later this year or during other talks not tied to the debt limit.

    "It's not necessarily even about the deal, it's the fact that we're even having this conversation in the context of debt ceiling negotiations," Lieberman said. "Where it just doesn't belong."

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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    Ximena Bustillo
    Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.