With new federal food stamp limits coming, advocates mobilize to inform Texas recipients

A requirement to work 80 hours a month, starting in September, could affect 44,000 Texans over age 49. Meanwhile, attention in Congress shifts to the farm bill’s significant impact on food stamp policy.

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of Texans are set to face new barriers to accessing food stamps under this spring’s deal to raise the federal debt limit, but fresh efforts are underway to help more Texans avoid hunger.

Food advocates and lawmakers are mobilizing to inform lower-income residents about new rules that could cut their access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Under legislation brokered between Congress and the White House, starting this summer more middle-aged SNAP participants will have to find jobs to continue with the program.

Democrats are also hoping to stave off efforts from the right to further restrict access to the program as Congress tackles the farm bill, the massive legislative package that includes a wide range of food and agricultural priorities, from food security to trade protections to keep U.S. farmers internationally competitive.

Under the new work requirements, SNAP participants ages 51 and under without dependents or disabilities will have to work at least 80 hours a month beginning in early September to continue using food stamps. The age increases to 53 in October and 55 in 2024.

SNAP already has federal work requirements — generally at least 80 hours a month — for adults under 49 who don’t have disabilities or dependents to receive full-time benefits. Although there are plenty of exceptions to the work requirements, 44,000 Texans could see their SNAP access vanish if they don’t work the required hours, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Democrats condemned the work requirement as unnecessary, ineffective and aimed at undermining the SNAP program. Texans in that age range who can’t work or have to work irregularly to take care of older relatives or disabled adult children would not be exempt from the work requirements, and many will be blindsided by the change, they say.

“Taking some 50- to 55-year-olds off SNAP is just wrong. And it’s nuts to me, that that’s the price that Republicans wanted paid to get the debt ceiling raised,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin. Casar is a labor activist who voted against the debt ceiling agreement because of the work requirement, though he acknowledged the economic need to raise the debt ceiling.

Despite the ire from the left, there’s slim political chance of rehashing the work requirement. Republicans won’t entertain rescinding one of their long-term policy priorities, and most Democrats have little interest in relitigating a deal brokered by their president.

Groups that work with food-insecure Texans say the byzantine system for food-assistance programs makes it difficult for participants to keep up with new rules.

“There’s definitely people who are on SNAP right now who will be affected by this, and they may not know that this is coming,” said Kathy Green, director of state and federal strategy at AARP.

Green said AARP will likely work with food banks and other food-security groups to make sure participants are aware of policy changes made hundreds of miles away in Washington.

But regardless of outreach efforts, Katherine Byers, government relations officer at the Houston Food Bank, said “of course” many participants will be blindsided when the new work requirement takes effect and their benefits get slashed.

Republicans argue that work requirements are necessary to ensure that SNAP benefits don’t get abused and that participants can wean off the program and get back on their feet. To Republicans, 54 is a perfectly workable age, and there are ample exemptions in place to protect those who have legitimate reasons not to work.

“An expanded work requirement for working-age, able-bodied adults is a reasonable condition for receiving SNAP benefits,” said U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, which oversees food-assistance programs. “Getting South Texans back in the workforce is a win.”

As part of the debt ceiling deal, the work requirement does not apply to SNAP participants who are experiencing homelessness. Military veterans could also be exempt, as well as adults 24 and under who were in foster care on their 18th birthday.

But Democrats and food-security advocates point out that the majority of SNAP participants already work, and those who don’t may be exempt because they’re caring for elderly or disabled family members. Almost 80% of SNAP-participating households had at least one income earner before the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau.

“Unpaid caregivers who are taking care of aging parents, maybe children with extreme special needs that they have not been able to help them function in a school environment, these folks can’t go to work,” Byers said. “Or if they are working, they’re losing hours, they don’t have PTO. So if they take off enough work for their illness or the person they’re caring for, they’re going to get fired.”

The increased paperwork to report working hours could deter participants, endangering their benefits, said Casar, who was dismayed that Republicans used the debt ceiling negotiations to push work requirements — using the U.S. economy’s health as leverage.

Congress generally issues major changes to SNAP in the farm bill, which is up for renewal this year.

The farm bill usually passes with bipartisan support, and the House Agriculture Committee’s Republican chair, Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, said he wants to continue that tradition. Although Thompson supports work requirements, last month he defended food stamps during a committee hearing as necessary to helping the most vulnerable Americans bounce back from hard times.

But the nation is more politically divided than the last time Congress passed the farm bill, in 2018, and more than 200 members of the House have never voted on a farm bill. None of the four Texans on the Agriculture Committee — Casar; De La Cruz; Republican Ronny Jackson, of Amarillo; and Democrat Jasmine Crockett, of Dallas — were in Congress in 2018.

And with several far-right Republicans demonstrating a willingness to bring Congress to a standstill to rein in federal spending, a multibillion-dollar agriculture and social services package could be politically bitter for some newer members. Programs normally covered by the farm bill are expected to cost $725 billion over the next five years at current baseline spending, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The majority of that spending would go toward the package’s nutrition title, particularly SNAP.

Unlike federal spending that is doled out on an annual basis, SNAP funding depends on how many eligible participants have signed up. Cutting SNAP funding would mean limiting new sign-ups or reducing the benefits each participant can receive. The average Texas SNAP participant gets $265 per month — or just under $9 per day.

Under Thompson, Republicans on the committee are hoping to improve the program’s efficiency with new technology, encourage healthier eating habits by restricting junk food purchases and target criminal organizations that steal SNAP benefits from participants.

Casar agrees with the need to tackle criminal organizations scamming SNAP participants and hopes to expand eligibility to workers while they are on strike. Food advocates also want benefits to include hot, ready-made meals. They oppose Republican efforts to limit eligible foods to promote healthier eating, arguing that better access to low-cost, healthy food is a more effective way to encourage nutritious diets.

“Just creating a list of things that folks can’t buy with SNAP is not going to help them eat more nutritiously. Period,” Byers said.

But expanding benefits could be challenging as House Republicans use their majority to demand more reductions in federal spending. The debt ceiling deal capped future federal discretionary spending for the next fiscal year at current levels, and House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said she’d try to drop spending down to fiscal year 2022 levels.

“A cost-neutral bill will mean that any new spending has to come from cutting other parts of the farm bill, and I think lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are really resisting the idea of cuts to farm bill funding,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas.

Congress has until the end of September to renew the farm bill before funding begins to peter out.

This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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