September 30, 2023

Debt deal imposes new work requirements for food aid, frustrating many Democrats

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are deeply conflicted over the food aid requirements that President Joe Biden negotiated as part of the debt ceiling deal amid fears that damage has been done to safety net programs that will be difficult to unravel in coming years as Republicans become more demand cuts.

Negotiating stricter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, became the focus for the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, until the very end. Negotiators from both sides made it clear publicly and privately that this was the main area of ​​disagreement and nearly led to talks being broken off several times.

In the end, Democrats cautiously accepted new demands for some able-bodied recipients in exchange for food aid. Republicans agreed to remove some job requirements for veterans, the homeless and others.

The result of the tense back and forth was a bipartisan deal, but one that many Democrats were concerned about as they weighed whether to vote for the package Biden signed on Saturday. Many struggled to restrict access to food for marginalized communities, with the result that the United States was able to avoid paying its debts.

“To make sure this country didn’t default on its bills, we turned around and let our most vulnerable communities default,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. Years before running for Congress, Bush was living in a car with her husband and two young children after the family was evicted from their rental home.

The federal aid program provides money monthly — sometimes as little as $6 a day — to help low-income people and families buy groceries. It is the largest hunger-fighting program in the country. Last year alone, 41 million people used food to buy food, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program.

By 2025, there will be new requirements for able-bodied adults aged 49 to 54 with no dependents — a five-year increase. Those individuals must work a minimum of 80 hours per month or attend training programs if they wish to receive more than three months of SNAP benefits within a three-year period.

Republicans have tried for decades to expand the job requirements for these state aid programs, arguing that they lead more people to return to the labor market, despite several studies showing they have little impact on employment.

“We are going to reduce these programs to a life jacket, not a lifestyle. A hand up, no handout and that has always been the American way,” Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the vice chairman of the House Republican conference, told reporters.

The White House countered that Republican proposal by getting GOP lawmakers to waive job requirements for new groups — veterans, individuals facing homelessness or housing instability, and aging youth from foster homes — to increase the number of people balance that would now face these new constraints.

The end result could be more people receiving SNAP benefits overall. An estimate by the impartial Congressional Budget Office released Tuesday said the debt ceiling package changes would add nearly 80,000 people to SNAP’s rolls in an average month.

But the trade-off between seemingly helping some groups and hurting others still left the Democratic Party’s left—lawmakers who supported and helped Biden meet his agenda for the first two years of his term—frustrated by the outcome. . That was especially true when advocates, including the nonpartisan National Alliance to End Homelessness, warned of a disturbing trend across the country of an increase in older adults becoming homeless, some for the first time.

“What we shouldn’t be playing is the suppression of the Olympics,” Bush said. “Like who gets hurt today? Which one is allowed to cross the finish line today to hurt? That is not where we as a society should be.”

Bush, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voted “no” to the debt limit deal Wednesday evening after spending days listening to interest groups and voters on the issue.

“I think it’s important that (Biden) understands that it’s good for us to vote strong because this isn’t a deal he would have made if we weren’t being held hostage,” Washington State Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. chairman of the Progressive Caucus, told The Associated Press last week.

They were not alone. A few dozen Democrats in the House and a handful in the Senate voted against the compromise, arguing that the bill allowed for Republican hostage-taking and could open the door for future cuts to these government programs in the coming months.

“I did not agree to these SNAP restrictions, and I will not give Republicans an opening to try to take food away from more food-insecure Americans in Farm Bill negotiations later this year,” said Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., in a statement.

The White House and Democrats who ultimately supported the negotiated deal said they believe the issue of job requirements and risk has been put to bed by Republicans.

“The most important thing to me is the fact that this closes the door on that debate,” said Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who heads the Senate Agriculture, Food and Forestry Committee and is a longtime advocate and defender of the SNAP. program. “We are not going to bring it up again in the Farm Bill. This is not something that will be renegotiated. It’s finished.”

But proponents warn that could change, as the debt limit law was the most substantial change to the working rules for food aid and other government aid programs since they went into effect in 1996 with Social Security reform.

Some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress — part of the right wing McCarthy had to placate to become speaker — have criticized the plan for being “weak” and are eager to push these programs even further. to press the head.

“In this bill, we have temporary work requirements, but we added permanent new exceptions,” says Texas Rep. Keith Self, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus who overwhelmingly rejected the bill. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is a sleight of hand.”


Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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