WASHINGTON ― Republicans and President Joe Biden are locked in a political fight over federal spending and whether Congress should tighten eligibility for food and health benefits.
But even if Congress does nothing, federal benefits are shrinking this year and millions of Americans are losing eligibility.
Already, more than 16 million households have seen their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits shrivel after Congress canceled an increase put in place at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. This month, seniors saw their monthly allotment fall from $295 to as little as $23.
And as many as 15 million individuals will lose Medicaid in the coming months because Congress has canceled the pandemic policy of maintaining enrollment by not continuously rechecking beneficiaries’ eligibility. Millions could lose coverage just by failing to keep up with paperwork.
Republicans want to trim the Medicaid and SNAP rolls even more by setting stricter limits on benefits for unemployed adults who don’t have children or disabilities. Lawmakers have frequently claimed that Biden eased eligibility while ignoring the fact that stricter standards are already snapping back into place.
“Right now there are more job openings than people looking for work, in part because the Biden administration has weakened some of the very work requirements that then-Senator Joe Biden previously supported,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last week.
McCarthy has said that unless President Biden agrees to spending cuts and new “work requirements,” Republicans will refuse to allow the federal government to continue borrowing money to pay for the most basic federal expenses.
It’s a high-stakes showdown. If McCarthy and Biden can’t reach a deal to raise the “debt ceiling” limit on government borrowing, sometime this summer the government could fail to make payments, potentially roiling financial markets and the economy.
This week, McCarthy has said the House will vote on a symbolic bill to raise the debt ceiling, cut federal spending and create new work requirements for people receiving benefits from SNAP, Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The bill is a nonstarter with Democrats, and it’s unclear if it can even win support from enough Republicans to pass.
Even if House Republicans fail to get new work requirements through both the House and Senate, able-bodied SNAP recipients will still face stricter rules in the coming months thanks to an agreement between Biden and Republicans to end the formal public health emergency declaration related to the pandemic.
SNAP already requires able-bodied adults without dependents to spend about 20 hours per week in employment or training, though all states were allowed to waive the requirement during the pandemic thanks to a relief bill signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in 2020.
Starting in July, states will lose the ability to waive the rule based on the pandemic. Failure to fulfill the work rule limits SNAP recipients to three months of benefits over three years, meaning the cutoffs will begin in October. The time limit applies to SNAP recipients between the ages of 18-49 and not taking care of children. (Most SNAP households include children or people who are elderly or disabled.)
Gina Plata-Nino, deputy director of SNAP policy at the Food Research & Action Center, said the policy could affect 1.5 million SNAP recipients ― and that it probably wouldn’t help them get jobs.
“There is a plethora of research that shows that time limits do not increase employability, but instead have a direct harmful effect on individuals who can only get SNAP for three months within a three year period,” Plata-Nino said.
Republicans have proposed expanding the time limit up to age 55, as well as making it harder for states to waive the rule in areas of high unemployment.