Tussle over food sustenance ends with debt-ceiling agreement prolonging age requirements
Congress negotiated the debt ceiling “on the backs of poor people desperately trying to make ends meet,” an expert versed in the issue said.
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Lawmakers in Congress agreed last week to modify working requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, settling a months-long partisan showdown that lasted until the 11th hour of debt ceiling negotiations.
In a move to avert a national default, Congress stretched the age limit for reporting working requirements for SNAP recipients.
Not much changed, but advocates griped over negotiations, saying that the debt ceiling crisis “should never have been resolved on the backs of poor people desperately trying to make ends meet and put food on the table,” said Louise Hayes, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
“We're grateful that the final deal considerably weakened the provisions of the House bill. So that the effects on low-income Philadelphians I think will not be great,” Hayes argued.
Negotiating food insecurity
Congress’ solution sent to the White House included new working requirements, better known to advocates as time limits, a timeframe in which “able-bodied adults” have three months to secure employment.
Before, adults 18-50 were subject to the reporting requirements. But as the dust around debt ceiling negotiations settled, those up to age 52 need to secure employment within the three-month wedge, starting in 2024. In 2025, that number goes up to 54.
Exemptions include veterans, people experiencing homelessness, veterans, and individuals 18-24 who aged out of foster care as an adult. Before the new exemptions, only pregnant people and those with disabilities occupied the list.
U.S. Senator John Fetterman, elected recently during the 2022 midterms, described the Republican-led measure as a “proposal that would make Scrooge blush” in a statement.
“It’s punitive adding more work requirements for SNAP. SNAP already has work requirements,” he said.
Fetterman, who voted to sink the debt limit bill given its SNAP provisions, sits on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Remaining qualified becomes a tougher challenge for people who need SNAP. The agreement calls for eligible applicants to fulfill 80 hours of work monthly, not including the time it takes to find and secure employment.
And the caveats are harsh. SNAP recipients unable to secure employment within the three-month timeframe risk losing their benefits altogether.
“Low-income people who can work do work,” Hayes said.
“People who are in this group of unemployed adults without children who are subjected to [time limits]…most of these people, many of them have been working or will be working again soon, but are going through some sort of crisis right now. Homelessness, caregiving responsibilities, recent loss of a job, something's going on with folks that they temporarily can't work.”
Hayes, citing an Ohio report capturing the profile for average SNAP applicants and recipients, said that individuals who fall under the “able-bodied” category won’t report their disability, when applicable.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks found that 30.8% of clients reported a physical or mental health limitation.
“That population of folks who…outside of Philadelphia, and in many other states, they're typically extremely poor, and have a lot of barriers to employment,” Jones said, “but [the report] showed that huge numbers of [able-bodied adults] had disabilities that hadn't been diagnosed, and so they shouldn't have been there at all.”
Under current law, however, PA relies on statewide waivers that have weathered multiple administrations, Democratic and Republican, exempting SNAP recipients in geographical areas with higher unemployment rates from work requirements. Philly has enjoyed these exemptions since 1996.
Advocates fighting for more relaxed constraints say the backbone of the rules set by Capitol Hill is based on myths surrounding SNAP recipients. It’s unclear whether future efforts to obtain waivers could be thwarted by the federal government.
The Department of Human Services confirmed to the Philadelphia Inquirer last week that it would continue to apply for new waivers, depending on the guidelines by the United States Department of Agriculture.
AL DÍA has reached out to DHS and is awaiting a response.