The House of Representatives voted down a farm bill last Friday. It was a bill that lived and died by its insistence on subjecting participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) to a slew of unnecessary and misguided work requirements. Had it passed and been signed into law, the bill would have effectively reduced or eliminated benefits for millions of people. And though it promised to channel the resulting “savings” into state-administered job training programs, this proposal, too, was deeply flawed and betrayed serious misperceptions about the populations that participate in SNAP.
While this version of the farm bill failed (good riddance), chances are we haven’t seen the last of proposals to achieve so-called welfare reform through farm policy. So this seems like a good time to assess what the House bill’s sponsors got wrong about the people in their own districts who rely on SNAP—and what Congress should do to achieve a farm bill that really works for these communities.
Who are SNAP participants?
We’ve shown that rural communities rely on SNAP at higher rates than their urban counterparts and derive substantial economic benefit from the program, but are often overlooked in federal policy discussions about nutrition assistance programs—allowing policymakers who represent these communities to repeatedly make decisions that aren’t in their best interest. (See: Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers.) Amid the calls for work requirements that promote “self-sufficiency” and discourage a “lifestyle of dependency,” it is particularly important that we continue to push for policies grounded not in ideology, but in evidence. To this end, we used the publicly-available 2016 USDA Quality Control data and a linked geographic indicator to gain a better understanding of SNAP use in urban (metropolitan) and rural (nonmetropolitan) areas nationwide.
In many ways, the demographics of SNAP use in urban and rural areas differ little, and support what we already know about the populations that use the program. Among all SNAP participants nationwide, about 40 percent of participants are children, while roughly 10 percent are elderly. Meanwhile, able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs—the population at the center of the highly contested work requirements—make up only eight percent of all SNAP participants. (You read that correctly. Eight percent.) And among that population, research indicates that one-quarter work while receiving SNAP, and about three-quarters work during the year before or after receiving benefits. Which means the House leadership willingly, enthusiastically even, jeopardized their chance at passing a farm bill in order to target fewer than eight percent of SNAP participants—the vast majority of whom are still actively participating in the labor force.
In rural communities, more SNAP participants live with disabilities
But the USDA dataset does point to one key difference between urban and rural SNAP participants: a greater percentage of those in rural areas are living with disabilities.
In rural areas, SNAP users with disabilities make up 11.3 percent of participants, compared to 9.5 percent in urban areas. Though the difference may seem slight, think of it this way: if the proportion of SNAP users with disabilities in urban areas matched rural areas, it would equal an additional 70,000 participants. The disparity shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given that rural rates of disability are themselves higher; according to the Center for Disease Control, residents of rural areas tend to be older, poorer, and sicker than their urban counterparts.
Work requirements won’t end persistent poverty—least of all with untested and underfunded job training programs
All of this should trigger some realizations for those on the House and Senate agriculture committees who will draft and campaign for subsequent versions of the farm bill. Firstly, additional work requirements will apply to a small fraction of their constituencies, while delivering a particularly devastating blow to the participants it does touch. Secondly, the same set of social, economic, and demographic factors that contribute to higher disability rates are likely among the factors that continue to drive unemployment and underemployment in rural areas.
Broadly speaking, these are but a few of the symptoms of the same disease: persistent poverty. And the bottom line is that no amount of job training will counteract a lack of well-paying jobs, least of all while we’re punching holes in the federal safety net.
The consolation prize of last week’s failed farm bill was supposed to be the promise of delivering people from poverty by providing Employment and Training (E&T) opportunities for “anyone who wants one.” This proposal, too, was deeply flawed: it lacked empirical evidence showing that E&T models would be effective and scalable, and grossly underfunded the program, offering what would be equivalent to just $30 per month per eligible SNAP participant. Even if a lack of employable skills were the primary factor driving SNAP use—and it’s not, by a long shot—the House bill’s job training solutions would still be feckless and paper-thin.
What should Congress do instead?
Addressing some of the major root causes of poverty and food insecurity is no easy task—particularly given the wide variation among rural communities across the country. But using the farm bill to make investments in local economies would be a good place to start. The House bill failed to invest in a number of proposed policies and programs with demonstrated success in supporting farmers, bolstering local and regional food systems, and making nutritious foods more affordable and readily available to communities. These programs include the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grant program, both of which are contained in the bipartisan Local FARMS Act; the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program; the Food and Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program; and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. These programs have received broad support from families, farmers, and food producers around the country who know their communities best and see a better way forward.
The Senate will release its own draft farm bill in the coming weeks, and the House is expected to hold another vote late in June—meaning there are plenty of opportunities to tell your elected officials what you want to see (and definitely don’t want to see) in the next farm bill. Visit our website for all things farm bill, including policy updates, easy ways to reach out to your Senators and Representatives, and helpful talking points around SNAP and the Local FARMS Act. Let’s keep working toward a food system we can be proud of.