WASHINGTON — Republicans have said for months that they want stricter “work requirements” for federal benefits as a way to save government money and shove layabouts into jobs.
But Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) pitched work requirements as a more compassionate policy in a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House last week.
“I tried to explain to the president when I met with him that these are job opportunity requirements,” Thompson told HuffPost, adding that the requirements could pair people with career and technical education.
Over the weekend, Biden suggested he was open to new work requirements as part of an ongoing negotiation with Republicans over federal spending and the government’s ability to continue borrowing money to fund operations.
Progressives have pushed back and Biden has said he’ll fight changes that make people poorer, though he hasn’t definitively ruled out including work requirements in a final deal.
“Maybe I made an impact, who knows,” Thompson said.
Thompson chairs the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees farm subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal government’s premier anti-hunger policy. He and the other top members of the House and Senate agriculture committees met with Biden at the White House last week to talk about an upcoming “farm bill” that would reauthorize farm subsidies and SNAP.
Before Congress gets to the farm bill, however, Republicans have demanded changes to SNAP and other programs in exchange for raising the debt limit and allowing the federal government to pay its bills. If Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) can’t strike a deal, the government could default on its debts next month, potentially triggering bank turmoil and widespread job loss.
Work requirements are limits on benefits to people who don’t have jobs, and SNAP already disallows more than three months of payments to childless, able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49, though states can waive the limit in response to high unemployment. Republicans have proposed reducing state waiver authority and applying the work requirement to people as old as 55.
On Monday, Biden said the proposal “would put a million older adults at risk of losing their food assistance and going hungry.” (The Congressional Budget Office has said the change would trim enrollment by 275,000.)
Thompson, who is 63, suggested people in their early 50s shouldn’t count as “older” Americans.
“I think most people that are between the ages of 49 and 55 would resent being called old. I’m a lot older than that,” he said.
He has also stressed that states provide free employment and training programs to SNAP recipients who are subject to work requirements. Though every state has its own program, they typically link recipients to case management through local nonprofits that in turn try to connect recipients to jobs and training. According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, case managers help SNAP recipients make individualized plans and also help them pay for transportation or interview clothes.
“There are some great [employment and training] programs but they’re small and they spend the resources to really meet people where they’re at,” said Ed Bolen, a nutrition policy expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states, on the other hand, run mandatory programs and cancel people’s SNAP benefits for failing to participate.
The basic idea of a work requirement, though, is that cutting assistance should force people to try to find employment, since they won’t want to starve or become homeless through lack of income. But as far as we know, it doesn’t always work that way. In a review of economic analysis on the subject, the Congressional Budget Office found that SNAP’s existing work requirement boosted employment for some recipients, but mostly made people poorer.
“Earnings increased among recipients who worked more, but far more adults stopped receiving SNAP benefits because of the work requirement,” the CBO reported last year. “Most of the adults who had their SNAP benefits terminated for failing to comply with the work requirement have very low income because few of them have earnings or receive cash payments.”
Thompson’s main point to Biden was that most SNAP recipients wouldn’t be affected by the proposed changes, since the elderly, the disabled and people with minor children would all remain exempt.
“So, it’s like, who are we talking about here?” Thompson said.