This September, after Congress returns from its August recess, we can expect to see the first public meeting of the farm bill conference committee.
The committee—currently composed of a healthy 47 appointees (or “conferees”) from the House and nine from the Senate—will have the difficult task of reconciling two vastly different versions of the bill. The House bill received sharp criticism for its proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), including extreme and unjustified work requirements that would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people. The Senate, by contrast, passed a bipartisan bill that left the structure of SNAP largely intact and made additional investments in healthy and sustainable food systems.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t surprise us if House Republican conferees continue to push for changes that will make it harder for people to access SNAP. But based on the data, this strategy seems pretty misguided.
We looked at household SNAP participation among the counties represented by the 28 House Republican conferees and found that restricting SNAP would not only harm many of their constituents—it would harm them disproportionately compared to counties represented by House Democrats.*
Will conferees push SNAP changes at the expense of their own voters?
Evidence shows that SNAP is one of the most effective public assistance programs we have. In 2016, it lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty and provided many more with temporary assistance between jobs or in crisis. And as we’ve shown, it benefits people of every zip code and political persuasion across the country, helping families put food on the table and set aside money for other critical expenses. Yet SNAP has become an intensely partisan issue, and its work requirements are now the most polarizing piece of the farm bill debate.
But dogma and data don’t always converge—and this could prove particularly troublesome for the House Republican conferees.
We looked at the average household SNAP participation among counties represented by both the 28 House Republicans and 19 Democrats appointed to the farm bill conference committee. Here’s what we found:
- On average, households in counties represented by Republican conferees are more likely to participate in SNAP than those in counties represented by Democratic conferees. The average household participation across the nearly 600 Republican counties is 13.9 percent, compared to an average of 12.3 percent across 135 Democratic counties.
- Nationwide, about 14.3 percent of households in a given county participate in SNAP. Nearly half of all counties represented by Republican conferees exceed this average (288 out of 597) —compared to just a quarter of counties represented by Democratic conferees (34 out of 135).
- For some Republican conferees, a vast majority of the counties they represent have above-average household SNAP participation:
- All but one of the 13 counties Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL-3) represents have above-average SNAP participation. In Macon County, nearly a third of households participates in SNAP.
- Likewise, 23 of the 24 counties represented by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA-8) have above-average SNAP participation. In Atkinson County, Ben Hill County, and Turner County, more than a quarter of households participate in SNAP.
- A vast majority of counties (147 out of 174 in total) represented by eight other Republican conferees exceed the national average for household SNAP participation. Those counties are represented by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR-1), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4), Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL-2), Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA-12), Rep. James Comer (R-KY-1), Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5), Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC-7), and Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC-6).
The data beg the question: are House Republicans unaware of the extent to which SNAP helps people in the counties they represent, or are they just indifferent?
A is for August (and Action)
As we mentioned, it’s August recess (sort of—Principal McConnell cut summer break short in the Senate), which means your Senators and Representatives are probably spending some time at home. If one of the farm bill conferees (see the full list of House Republicans and Democrats) represents your district, pay them a visit.
If your Representative isn’t on the committee, there’s still plenty you can do to be vocal about your priorities:
- Sign onto our national action alert urging farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate version of the bill. (If you’re a public health expert, we’ve got something special for you.)
- Tweet, email, or snail mail a “thank you” to your Representative if they voted no on the House bill—or a “no thank you” if they voted yes.
- Take a look at the Senate list, too. Though they managed to pass a bipartisan bill the first time around, they’ll need our support more than ever if they hope to engage in successful negotiations with the House.
*Includes full and partial counties. Does not include Virgin Islands. 5-year estimates of county-level SNAP participation provided by the 2011-2015 American Community Survey.