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Soak the Needy

The Work Requirements Fight Isn’t Over

Conservatives grumble that the debt ceiling deal was insufficient. Can they force new talks on work requirements?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow speaks to members of the press after a weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on May 31, in Washington, D.C.

Russ Vought was unimpressed. The former director of the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget, who emerged as a behind-the-scenes impresario of the conservative strategy in the debt ceiling fight, considered the deal crafted by President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy a betrayal of Republican values. Provisions changing work requirements to nutrition programs were particularly upsetting: After a Congressional Budget Office report found that the new policy would cost more than $2 billion, Vought complained on Twitter that “the gang can’t shoot straight.”

“Work requirements are supposed to save money,” Vought grumbled on Tuesday. Republicans had wanted additional Medicaid work requirements, as well as stricter requirements for food stamp programs; instead, the deal created new exemptions for vulnerable populations, such as the unhoused and veterans. In a House Freedom Caucus press conference the same day, Representative Keith Self echoed that grievance, calling the new work-requirement exemptions a “sleight of hand.”

Despite opposition from conservatives within and outside of the Capitol, the bill to raise the debt ceiling passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. However, continued Republican griping signals that the fight over added work requirements to nutrition programs may be far from over.

With the battle over lifting the nation’s borrowing cap in the rearview mirror, the focus of many in Congress will now pivot to other critical and contentious matters, including negotiating the sprawling legislation that governs major agricultural, environmental, and nutrition programs. That omnibus measure, known colloquially as the farm bill, has potential ramifications for the low-income Americans who receive food stamp benefits.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is typically governed by the farm bill. McCarthy told reporters after the House vote Wednesday night that he would advocate for more work requirements. After being asked about more Democrats voting for the debt ceiling bill than Republicans, McCarthy half-jokingly said that meant he could push further on these issues down the line. “Let’s get the rest of the work requirements,” the speaker said.

Of course, voting for a bill that includes new work requirements to avoid default is very different from doing so without the threat of catastrophic economic consequences. Moreover, negotiations over work requirements are always a contentious element of reaching a consensus on the farm bill. Even though Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House in 2018, they were unable to pass stricter SNAP work requirements in that year’s farm bill due to opposition from Democrats.

Representative Glenn Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, left the door cracked open to further consideration of work requirements. “I think this was really good, but I do think we have to do our due diligence,” Thompson told reporters on Wednesday. “I learned a long time ago, you don’t say what you’ll never do. So [I’m] just going into it with an open mind.”

But given that the debt ceiling legislation has already added new work requirements to the program, other key lawmakers on the House and Senate Agriculture committees have said that work requirements will be off the table for future farm bill discussions.

“Once this is done, we are not revisiting it in the farm bill,” Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters on Tuesday. She added on Wednesday that she sees the issue as closed because it was agreed to by Biden and McCarthy, rendering any other potential dealmaking unnecessary. “You can’t get any higher-level negotiation than the president of the United States and the speaker,” Stabenow said.

Senator John Fetterman, the chair of the Agriculture subcommittee that oversees the farm bill’s nutrition title, was one of the few Democrats who voted against the debt ceiling deal in the Senate. “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.

Under the policy before the debt deal, able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 were already subject to work requirements, only able to qualify for benefits if they work or are enrolled in a training program for 80 hours per month. If they do not fulfill these requirements within three months of receiving SNAP, they lose their benefits.

The debt ceiling deal raised the age for work requirements for these childless adults, moving the threshold from 49 to 54. The new policy phases in beginning in October, and would expire in 2030. It also creates explicit exemptions for the unhoused, veterans, and young adults leaving foster care; because of those adjustments, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the change could mean around 78,000 people per month gain benefits, but Republicans dispute that math, as do progressives.

“There is a lot of focus on CBO’s estimate that the group newly protected may be somewhat larger than the group newly harmed. Some have even criticized the analysis, which [CBO] had to do [with] serious data limitations and under extreme time pressure,” tweeted Sharon Parrott, the president of the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP. “The most important takeaway … is that under current law the SNAP work reporting requirement takes basic food assistance away from so many veterans, former foster youth, and [people] experiencing homelessness.”

Moreover, opponents have argued that the new requirements would put Americans between the ages of 50 and 54 at risk of losing their benefits. CBPP estimated that around 225,000 people in this age range could be cut from SNAP, losing around $8 per day in benefits.

Older people are generally sicker, and more likely to need access to benefits based on disability—even as administrative hurdles make it difficult to qualify for exemptions. Low-income Americans need to become eligible for Social Security Disability to prove that they are disabled, but doing so is a lengthy and arduous process. Around 10,000 disability applicants die each year while waiting for their disability application to be adjudicated. Critics argue that this change means that childless SNAP recipients between the age of 50 and 54 who have struggled to obtain disability benefits—and who were not previously subject to work requirements—will need to jump through more bureaucratic hoops as they try to maintain their benefits.

The debt deal included other changes to SNAP that affect how states are able to waive requirements. The House Republican bill lifting the debt ceiling in exchange for steep spending cuts would have restricted states’ abilities to issue waivers for work requirements. The new deal still provides for waivers in areas with limited job openings but permits fewer monthly exemptions. Rather than allow states to carry them over indefinitely, creating stockpiles of unused exemptions, states would be able to carry them over for one year only.

With those new policies soon to be implemented, Senator John Boozman, the Agriculture Committee’s top Republican, told reporters on Wednesday that further changes to food assistance would be challenging. “Based on the arguments that we’ve had with the debt ceiling, it would be very difficult to do anything else with SNAP,” Boozman said.

In a statement released after the late-night Senate vote on the debt ceiling deal on Thursday, Stabenow reiterated in a statement that “as far I am concerned, the issue of work requirements is settled for this Congress.”

“We will not further erode the dignity of Americans who simply need a little help—about $6 a day—to buy food,” she said.

Despite that flat insistence, conservative House Republicans—frustrated by the debt ceiling deal—may still mount an effort to add work requirements to an eventual farm bill. Representative Brad Finstad, the chair of the House Agriculture subcommittee overseeing the nutrition title, did not vote for the deal, and said in March that he believed the farm bill should offer “people a hand up, not just a handout.”

Even McCarthy, whose speakership is under perpetual threat from the truculent right, said at Wednesday’s press conference that he may not heed Democrats’ insistence that the issue of work requirements is settled. “They are now on record. They can’t sit there and yell, ‘This isn’t good,’” he said.