A Republican attempt to expand work requirements for federal food aid in debt legislation moving through Congress would increase federal spending by $2.1 billion over 10 years — far from the cuts GOP lawmakers had promised.
A compromise on the food aid requirements between House Republicans and President Joe Biden as the nation nears a disastrous government default may have backfired for the Republicans, who won the new work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for some able-bodied recipients in exchange for Democratic demands to drop work requirements for some other, more vulnerable recipients such as veterans and the homeless.
An estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released late Tuesday said that while the new work requirements in SNAP would save money, the added benefits pushed by Democrats would cost more — and add almost 80,000 people to the rolls in an average month.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., dismissed the estimates.
“Come see me in a year and I'll show you how much we actually saved,” McCarthy said as he left a late-night meeting Tuesday with his members. “You watch — a lot of people are going to get jobs now.”
Republicans are still claiming victory on the debt compromise after trying for several decades to expand work rules for food aid and other government assistance programs that were first put into place in 1996 welfare overhaul. But it’s unclear if the new budget estimate might cost Republican votes.
The overall bill negotiated by McCarthy and Biden would still cut spending over the next two years and also raise the nation’s debt ceiling to avert a calamitous default. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that if Congress doesn’t act, the government could run out of cash to pay its bills as soon as Monday.
A look at work requirements in the debt bill, and the history and politics behind it:
A HIGHER AGE LIMIT FOR WORK REQUIREMENTS
Current law requires most able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents to work or attend training programs for at least 80 hours a month if they want to receive more than three months of SNAP benefits within a three-year period. The bill phases in higher age limits for those work requirements, bringing the maximum age to 54 by 2025.
But as part of the compromise with Democrats, the provision is slated to expire five years later. At that time, the maximum age for the work requirements would drop back down to 49.
The CBO said that the new work rules on their own would reduce SNAP spending by $6.5 billion over 10 years. But the exemptions added by Democrats for veterans, the homeless and others would cost $6.8 billion over the same period. The agency said the bill would cost another $1.2 billion because the changes would overlap somewhat as they were phased in.
McCarthy and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said they believe the CBO estimate is incorrect, and that some recipients who are already exempted from the work requirements may have been double counted.
While some Republicans who are voting against the bill say the final compromise is not enough — Texas Rep. Chip Roy, one of the chief opponents of the bill, called the work requirements “weak” — Republicans involved in the negotiations praised the changes as reasonable.
“These requirements are not mean,” South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson told CNN on Sunday. “They’re not onerous. It’s 20 hours-a-week work training, education, or volunteering at a local food bank for people who are able-bodied, not pregnant, don’t have kids at home, live in an area where there are jobs.”
MORE BENEFITS FOR THE HOMELESS, VETERANS AND OTHERS
Under the bill, veterans, homeless people and young people aging out of foster care would be exempted from the requirements to find work or training after three months. Like the new requirements raising the age limits, those added benefits would also expire in 2030.
Some states already exempt homeless or veterans from the work requirements, but the bill would allow more people to avoid them.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, said the need for a new category “exposes the failures of the current exemption system.” Sharon Parrott, the group’s president, argues that veterans and people experiencing homelessness could already be exempted if states properly identified that they meet those criteria. In addition, she says, most of the people who will face new work requirements — the able-bodied adults without dependents between ages 49 and 54 — are not veterans or homeless.
“While the new exemptions are positive, improvements for some don’t justify expanding to others a failed policy that will increase and deepen poverty,” Parrott said.
STRICTER RULES FOR STATE SNAP EXEMPTIONS
A provision of the bill pushed by Republicans would limit how states can exempt individuals from the work requirements, reducing the number of discretionary exemptions that can be handed out to people who would otherwise be subject to the rules. That goes beyond debt legislation passed by the House last month.
Republicans proposed that change after Biden balked at a GOP proposal to add work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents on Medicaid, the federal health insurance program, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
The bill also requires the Agriculture Department to be more transparent in releasing data about how states waive work requirements and publish that information — a key win for Republicans who have long opposed the waivers.
NEW RULES FOR THE TANF PROGRAM
The agreement would also make changes to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which gives cash aid to families with children. While not going as far as the House bill had proposed — and only saving $5 million, according to CBO — the deal would make adjustments to a credit that allows states to require fewer recipients to work, updating and readjusting the credit to make it harder for states to avoid.
The credit, called the “caseload reduction credit,” allows states to reduce the number of people subject to work requirements based on the decline in the number of people on the TANF rolls in that state as compared to the number of people receiving the assistance in 2005. House Republicans wanted to move the year of comparison to 2022, which would have initially reset the credits to close to zero for every state. Under the compromise bill, states can gain credits for their caseload reduction since 2015.
The bill would also make other adjustments to TANF, including eliminating some small cash payments to families.