Paul Ryan has had three overarching goals during his political career: to cut taxes on the wealthy, to cut government spending on the poor and old, and to make the needy work if they want government help. Last year, the House Speaker finally checked the taxes bit off his Congressional bucket list. But his dreams of clipping the safety net have proven more elusive. The Obamacare repeal bill Ryan jammed through his chamber would have made the historic reductions to Medicaid that Republicans have been chasing for decades. But that effort died with a thumbs down from John McCain.
At the end of 2017, Ryan made it clear he wanted Republicans to make one last effort at “welfare reform” before the midterms potentially swept them out of power. The point was not to save money, he insisted, but to do “workforce development.” This was his dry, bureaucratic euphemism for making more adults work in order to qualify for federal aid like food stamps. Some Republicans were skeptical of this “workforce development” plan—perhaps because literally taking lunch money from the poor seemed like a dubious election year strategy—but the White House said it was on board.
Now, Ryan, who is set to retire at the end of this year, is finally taking his shot. Congress is currently in the process of reauthorizing the farm bill, which per longstanding Washington tradition includes spending on both agricultural subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—aka food stamps— in order to attract support from all sides of the aisle. (Democrats get to help the poor; Republicans get to help farmers.) This will likely be the last truly major piece of legislation Congress attempts to pass this year, meaning it’s Ryan’s last opportunity to add to his Hill legacy. The bill that House Republicans have written makes good on his welfare reform talk by attaching much stricter work requirements to the food stamp program. And President Trump is reportedly threatening to veto any bill that doesn’t include the reforms.
Although you wouldn’t know it from Republican rhetoric, the SNAP program already has rules meant to make sure recipients work if they can. Able-bodied adults are required to accept a job if they’re offered one, for instance, and childless enrollees between the ages of 18 and 49 can only receive benefits for a limited time, unless they spend 20 hours a week working or in training. (States can waive that requirement in areas with high unemployment, as many did after the Great Recession.)
The House farm bill would make today’s work requirements more stringent, but tries to soften the blow by promising that everybody will have access to a jobs program. Under the GOP’s proposal, adults between the ages of 18 and 59 will have to spend 20 hours at work or in training to qualify for benefits (it pops up to 25 hours starting in 2026), unless they are caring for a child under the age of six. If someone can’t find a job, states will be required to offer them a spot in some sort of employment or vocational training program, which Washington will provide $1 billion a year to help fund. Those who slip up on the work rules will be kicked off food stamps for 12 months. Do it again, and they’ll be frozen out for three years.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office believes that 1.2 million fewer people would receive benefits in 2028 thanks to the new work requirements, almost two-thirds of whom would be parents with older children. To Ryan’s credit though, the bill does not actually cut overall spending on the food stamp program; thanks in part to the funds for jobs training, it actually bumps up expenditures a smidge. On paper at least, this looks as close to a sincere, welfare-to-work bill as the Republicans ever produce.
But that’s also a rather low bar. Even if you accept the idea that people ought to work to earn their government aid—and I don’t think you should—the bill’s job training scheme is comically underfunded. The progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects that states will have to create spaces in their employment programs for about 3 million Americans a month. If so, the $1 billion a year provided by the bill will work out to a monthly $30 per classroom seat.* Even if more money was available, it’s not clear states have the tools in place to administer this kind of undertaking. Given what the legislation actually provides, there’s next to no chance they’ll pull it off. The CBO only thinks that only 80 percent of SNAP enrollees subject to the new work requirements would actually be offered any of the promised training services (the office says it assumes the rest won’t be kicked off the program, though doesn’t explain what makes them think that).
Chances are that the legislation will also prevent many perfectly eligible families from receiving food stamps simply by trapping them in red tape. Under the proposed bill, adults subject to work requirements will have to prove every single month that they either clocked their 20 hours on the job, were in training, or qualified for an exemption, such as for health. Today, states typically require a check-in just every six months, and for good reason: Low-income families tend to have erratic lives that make it hard to make those kinds of regular appointments. If a car breaks down, they don’t necessarily have the money to fix it. If a child gets sick, they can’t pay for a babysitter. They might work a number of different jobs, and have trouble getting their pay stubs together to prove they worked enough. Their work schedules also often fluctuate month to month, so that even if they meet the work requirements on average, they might miss them in any given April or May, and lose eligibility. In short, the burden of simply proving they really do qualify for help putting food on the table will likely trip a lot of families up. It’s the kind of underhanded, unofficial tactic for winnowing a safety net program that states like Georgia have used to cull their welfare rolls. Yet the CBO doesn’t seem to think these new paperwork requirements will push any families out of the program at all, which means it may be underestimating how many people lose food assistance.
Ryan’s justification for turning food stamps into a poorly funded and bureaucratically onerous work program is typically opportunistic and misleading. The speaker has lately taken to arguing that the U.S. is suffering from a “worker shortage,” and that pushing more adults into the labor force by reforming the safety net will help solve it. But while the job market is certainly getting tighter, there isn’t really any evidence that employers are facing a nationwide dearth of talent. Businesses are still hiring at roughly the same monthly pace they have been for years, and wages aren’t rising the way you’d expect if they were truly desperate. Which brings us to the broader issue, which is that there’s little to no evidence that the availability of foods stamps is discouraging a meaningful number of people from working. No matter what Ryan says, the American safety net is not a hammock.
It should also be said that the bill finds ways to boot people from the food stamp program that are completely unrelated to the notion of promoting work. For instance, hundreds of thousands of households would lose their SNAP benefits due to changes in what are known as categorical eligibility rules, which let people automatically qualify for food stamps if they participate in other federal or state programs for the disadvantaged, like Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Notably, the CBO says these same changes would deny free school lunches to about 265,000 children.
At its core, though, this bill is about sending the message that the only people worthy of assistance are those who work. It’s about punishing “takers,” as a younger, less politically astute Ryan would have put it. It’s based on the same sort of vaguely serious sounding, but ultimately spurious economic logic the Speaker has specialized in for his whole career, whether it was back in his days fear-mongering about the debt to justify monstrous austerity budgets or his more recent attempts to convince the world that Obamacare was in a death spiral in order to rationalize repealing it. This last legislative push may be a bit less vicious than some of his past work. But it’s still classic Paul Ryan.
One more thing
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