State of the Union Congress (copy)

In this Jan. 21, 2018, photo, lights shine inside the U.S. Capitol Building as night falls in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

J. David Ake

WASHINGTON — The federal farm bill, a periodic and sprawling reauthorization of an array of government agricultural and rural development programs, is facing a growing battle on Capitol Hill over proposals to stiffen work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The Republican draft of the farm bill would increase work and training requirements on adults receiving benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, informally known as food stamps.

Louisiana Republicans have largely lined up behind the proposals, which would require able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 to spend at least 20 hours every week at work or in job training programs — or else lose benefits. Those on disability and parents of children under the age of 6 would be exempted.

The proposal’s backers contend the change would help move unemployed, working-age adults into the labor force and cut down the need for government aid in the long run while maintaining support for families and the disabled.

But Democrats — including New Orleans Rep. Cedric Richmond, Louisiana’s lone Democrat in Congress — have blasted the proposal, arguing it would cut off needed assistance to millions of people. Critics of the proposal note most food stamp recipients already work and contend the threat of losing aid would endanger those trying to get by on the fringes of the economy.

The showdown over SNAP, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the bill’s cost, threatens to upend negotiations over the sprawling farm bill, which includes federal crop insurance and subsidy programs, rural broadband initiatives and a host of other government programs.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, imposed food stamp program work requirements of his own through an executive order in 2016. The state’s work requirements don’t go as far as the congressional Republican proposal, covering people only through age 49. Louisiana’s rules apply only to childless adults; the proposed federal requirements would cover those with school-age children.

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The food stamp program has historically helped hold together a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers to pass the package — a combination of farm subsidies and food aid for low-income Americans — which comes up roughly every five years.

The proposal to add work requirements may threaten that coalition and complicate passage of one of the last must-pass bills on Congress’ agenda this year. Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee broke off negotiations. Many of the programs covered by the farm bill will expire in September unless lawmakers act.

A similar food-stamp fight in 2012 brought farm bill negotiations to a standstill and took nearly two years to sort out.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has pushed the changes as a common-sense overhaul of SNAP, telling Politico the job-training requirements would provide those receiving benefits “a springboard out of poverty to a good paying job.”

Conaway’s committee estimated the number of people receiving SNAP aid would drop by about one million over the next decade, with some finding employment and others booted from the rolls for not meeting the requirement, according to Politico. The current proposal would send states a total of about $1 billion per year to fund job training programs.

Louisiana’s lone member of a congressional agriculture committee, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, is a strong supporter of adding the work requirements and has accused Democrats of “spreading misinformation” about how the requirements might impact families.

“Despite their claims, no child, caretaker of a young child, senior citizen or disabled person will lose SNAP benefits,” said Abraham, who represents a sprawling, mostly rural northwest Louisiana congressional district.

“No one will ever break the cycle of poverty by relying on the government for a handout, but this bill gives folks an incentive to enter the workforce,” Abraham added.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, contended that similar state-level work requirements in Kansas, Maine and Alabama yielded “amazing results” in moving people into jobs and off the SNAP rolls, calling that a “win-win.”

Graves introduced a bill in June of last year — the SNAP Reform Act — that would implement a very similar set of work requirements for SNAP recipients.

“Even the governor, our Democratic Governor (John Bel Edwards), came out in support of work requirements,” Graves said. “People shouldn’t be trying to make this a partisan issue. It has bipartisan support.”

The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, issued a report supporting Graves’ proposed work requirements, arguing the bill’s policy reform “would promote self-support among recipients and generate significant savings.”

"I would go toe-to-toe with people on this all day long," Graves said. "This is the right thing for taxpayers that are footing the bill for these poverty programs that aren’t working and this is the right thing for the poor and unemployed that have had challenges getting back into the workforce."

Opponents of the changes, however, contend the bill’s 20-hour-per-week work requirement doesn’t square with the reality of the job market for many low-income working Americans.

Many hold down service jobs in retail or restaurants with unpredictable hours or bounce between temporary gigs, said Davante Lewis, federal policy advocate at the Louisiana Budget Project, a left-of-center group that advocates for low- and moderate-income Louisiana families.

“Their schedules are determined by a corporation or manager. One week they might get 30 hours, then the next three weeks they hardly get anything,” said Lewis. “There’s this belief that those individuals who come from low-income families and are looking for some assistance to make ends meet somehow are defrauding the government and are lazy — that’s just not the case.”

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The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an national left-leaning think tank affiliated with the Louisiana Budget Project, highlighted unstable jobs in a report opposing the GOP-backed changes.

“The overwhelming majority … of able-bodied people on food stamps wake up and go to work,” said Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has come out strongly against the proposal. “It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Richmond expressed confidence Democrats would eventually defeat the work requirement proposal. Because some hardline conservatives want deep cuts to agricultural subsidies, Richmond said, House Republicans would likely need some Democratic support.

Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which supports increased work requirements but has been highly critical of federal subsidies for the farm industry, derided the initial draft of the farm bill as “cronyism” that makes the “the out-of-control farm handout system even worse.”

In the Senate, the GOP’s narrow majority means at least nine Democratic votes are needed to pass legislation.

“They’re going to give massive farm subsidies to millionaire farmers and they don’t have the votes in the (House Republican) Freedom Caucus to continue to give all of these massive subsidies to millionaires,” said Richmond. “They’re going to need us — and if you continue to go pick at the SNAP program, then we’re not coming.”

Adding work requirements to the SNAP program in many ways reflects a longstanding GOP goal to overhaul the nation’s welfare and social safety net programs, long an ambition of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The SNAP debate on Capitol Hill echoes an effort in the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year to add work requirements for Medicaid health-care coverage, a proposal that died during a failed special session.

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President Donald Trump’s administration has encouraged states to implement work requirements for the Medicaid program and has floated potential changes to SNAP.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia, has discussed possible ways to shrink the number of childless adults enrolled in the program and also suggested replacing SNAP cards with a “harvest box” of foods chosen by the federal government.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.