Conventional Beltway wisdom is that farm bills pass Congress with relative ease from a rare bipartisan coalition of rural legislators delivering farm programs for their constituencies while urban legislators gain nutrition assistance and food aid in the cities. But House Republican moves to slash nutrition assistance for low-income people might hit rural communities the hardest while derailing passage of the legislation that expires Sept. 30.
“The bottom line for nutrition in the House Republican draft is that people are going to get hurt by moving a lot of money out of food benefits either by kicking people out of the program or by lowering monthly food benefits,” said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “This is going to hit hardest in rural communities and small towns that tend to have particularly higher nutrition participation rates than urban areas.”
Vollinger was referring to the House Republican draft of the 2018 farm bill, passed through the Agriculture Committee on a straight party-line vote last week. The Democrats on the committee voted against the bill primarily because of proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the “food stamp” program.
“The cuts should be a concern for people that live in rural communities, and for people interested in the viability of rural grocers and whether or not they can continue to make it,” Vollinger said. “Many rural grocers have a very high percentage of their sales coming through SNAP.”
From 2012–2016, about 15 percent of rural households (defined as nonmetropolitan couties) participated in SNAP. That’s at least 2 percentage points higher than the rate for metropolitan residents. Nearly 90% of counties with a SNAP usage rate of 30% or greater are rural. The counties with the highest rural SNAP-participation rates are clustered in the places with the highest rates of persistent poverty: the Black Belt in the Deep South, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and Native American tribal communities in the Great Plains and West.
The Republican draft seeks to erode the ability of SNAP to help families at risk of going hungry to put food on the table, according to FRAC. The anti-hunger group said that the House proposal would:
- Cut $5 billion in nutrition benefits from working families with children who have incomes between 130% and 200% of the poverty rate but were currently eligible because of high rent and child care costs. These families will lose their SNAP benefits, as well as free and reduced lunch benefits in schools.
- Cut automatic benefits from low-income families that participate in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Currently, LIHEAP participants are automatically enrolled in SNAP and receive modest benefits. This saves significant administrative costs, while also assuring that low-income families don’t have to choose between food and home heating expenses.
- Cut $9 billion in nutrition benefits by expanding the number of people subject to SNAP eligibility cutoffs by adding unemployed and underemployed parents with older children and adults up to age 60. Currently, time limits apply to able-bodied adults age 18–50 without dependents, many of whom are between jobs or do not have steady enough work to meet the 20-hour-per-week minimum, often for reasons outside of their control. Others face significant barriers to work, such as lack of local job opportunities and lack of transportation to get to jobs or training programs.
“This doesn’t seem to fit with the narrative we’ve heard from some Congressional Republicans about the need to connect benefits with work requirements or participation in job training,” Vollinger said. “Most SNAP recipients already work.”
Rachel West, a poverty researcher at the Center for American Progress (CAP), said that in its current form, SNAP supports both low-wage workers and those unable to find jobs.
“Many rural communities have higher unemployment rates and greater health challenges due to physical and mental disabilities,” West said. “Rural areas are struggling disproportionately with the opioid epidemic and substance abuse. It doesn’t make sense to yank away support from people trying to get back on their feet.”
“Most people need SNAP in rural communities because their wages are so low, and because available jobs are often seasonal or part-time,” West said. “If the Republicans were serious about helping low-income workers, they would raise the minimum wage instead of trying to cut SNAP benefits.”
CAP research says that SNAP could save $5.3 billion if the minimum wage was increased to $12 per hour.
The farm bill includes billions of dollars in funding for farmers, crop insurance, conservation programs, rural economic development, infrastructure, food inspections, research and more. The legislation is administered by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The “Nutrition Title” makes up approximately 80% of the annual $100 billion pricetag (though that figure goes up and down annually due to changes in appropriations).
The next step in the process is a House floor vote. The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet released their draft of the bill, though members have committed to working on a bipartisan bill in response to the party-line process happening in the House due to SNAP changes. The current farm bill, passed in 2014, expires on Sept. 30.