U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who represents one of the country’s poorest congressional districts, is fighting hard on Capitol Hill to kick thousands of Louisianans off the federal food assistance that keeps their families healthy.
In The Advocate recently, Abraham wrote in support of a federal farm bill that would impose onerous new work requirements on some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients. While this may sound good on the surface, it ignores the fact that the vast majority of SNAP recipients who can work already do work. About 85 percent of SNAP recipients who aren’t children, seniors, or prevented from working by disability have a job within a year of enrollment in the program.
SNAP not only helps people when times are tough, such as when they suffer a job loss or an illness, but also when the work they have just doesn’t pay enough or offer stable enough hours to get by. But the House version of the farm bill would punish workers for circumstances that are often beyond their control. It would require people on SNAP to report their work hours every month to ensure that they meet the 20 per week work hour requirement. That means a fast-food worker whose hours are cut in the last week of the month could lose her food assistance for up to a full year.
Abraham promises that work training would be available for anyone who wants it, but says nothing about the quality of that training. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that effective work training programs would cost a minimum of $7,500 per participant. The proposal Abraham supports would spend only $30 per month on work training per participant.
While Louisiana has world-renowned cuisine, it also has one of the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 17.3 percent of Louisiana households struggle to keep food on the table. Federal food assistance is particularly important to the people of Abraham’s district: 55,275 households in the 5th Congressional District — 21 percent — received SNAP in 2016.
Finally, Abraham says the time is ripe for work requirements because the national economy is going strong. But the reality in his own district is very different. In East Carroll Parish the August unemployment rate was 11.3 percent; in Tensas it was 8.4 and in Madison 9.3. In Abraham’s home parish of Richland it stands at 7 percent — nearly double the national average.
The food assistance from SNAP benefits is limited — about $134 per recipient each month, which can only be used to purchase food. Still, it makes a critical difference in the lives of families that otherwise would face hard choices about whether to buy groceries or pay all of their rent, skip a meal or fill a prescription. Far from connecting these families with work, Abraham's proposal places another barrier in their path.
policy advocate, Louisiana Budget Project