WASHINGTON >> One of the most contentious issues surrounding talks over raising the debt limit has been whether the Biden administration would agree to stricter work requirements for people seeking food stamps and other safety net assistance.
The deal reached this weekend includes something of a compromise: It increases work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and cash welfare but does not alter requirements for Medicaid. It also expands food stamp access for veterans, homeless people and young adults transitioning out of the foster care system.
Whether that agreement will pass muster with progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans remains to be seen.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy is championing inclusion of work requirements as a win, but more conservative members have criticized the compromise as not going far enough. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, called the work requirements “weak” while Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., characterized the deal as a “betrayal.”
Biden administration officials have highlighted the expanded access for veterans as a victory. But liberal Democrats and activists for the poor are decrying the changes as onerous and counterproductive, pointing to research showing that existing requirements have little impact on employment.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the work requirement provisions “absolutely terrible policy” on CNN on Sunday, and said she would need to examine the text of the agreement more closely before deciding whether to vote for passage.
Asked on Monday about concerns raised by Jayapal and other progressive Democrats, President Joe Biden said he had not “had a chance to speak to her yet” but implored critics to “talk to me.”
It is unclear how the modifications would affect the overall number of food stamp beneficiaries or how much money, if any, it would save the federal government. The White House has said the changes will not significantly alter the number of people subject to requirements, suggesting a muted impact on government spending.
As part of the agreement, so-called able-bodied adults who are 54 and younger and do not have children must work or participate in a training program for at least 80 hours a month to receive food stamps for extended periods of time. Otherwise, they can receive benefits for only three months over a three-year period. Current work requirements apply to adults ages 49 and younger.
The agreement also exempted veterans, homeless people and young adults transitioning from foster care from those work requirements. Under current law, only those unable to work because of a physical or mental disability or pregnancy are exempt.
The debt ceiling deal also requires the Agriculture Department to make public the applications that states submit to waive work requirements for areas with high unemployment, and reduces the share of people a state can exempt to 8% of total beneficiaries from 12%.
Anti-poverty advocates praised the additional exemptions but lamented the expansion of work restrictions as well as the decision to tie safety net programs to the need to raise the nation’s debt limit.
“Making improvements for some groups is positive, but it doesn’t justify putting harmful requirements that are going to hurt older adults in place, ” said Sharon Parrott, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Avoiding a debt limit default will spare the country from an economic catastrophe, but it is simply wrong that the compromise agreement forces older Americans with low incomes to pay such a heavy price,” Eric Mitchell, executive director of the nonprofit group Alliance to End Hunger, said in a statement. He said the expansion of work requirements “will cause more older Americans to needlessly suffer from hunger and poverty.”
About 42.5 million people received SNAP benefits in February, compared with about 36.9 million in February 2020, the month before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Food stamp recipients receive an estimated $169 in monthly benefits on average, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.
Increasing the age for work requirements will likely reduce the number of beneficiaries. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that more stringent changes proposed in a House Republican bill in April — which would have also increased the age limit to 55 and further restricted state waivers without any new exemptions — would have pushed about 275,000 people off food stamps and reduced benefits for another 19,000 people.
But the new exemptions may also add people to food stamp rolls. A 2021 study from the Urban Institute estimated that adults subject to the work requirements were more likely to be homeless than other SNAP beneficiaries. Waiving work requirements could also increase the number of veterans who use food stamps from the current level of 1.1 million.
The White House has estimated those exemptions would likely offset the increased age, leaving the number of adults subject to the work requirements unchanged.
But Parrott argued that focusing the net impact of the agreement on SNAP participation ignores the harm the requirements will have on older adults, calling such calculations a “low bar” for lawmakers to clear.
“The reality is that this is hurting a group of people that is very disadvantaged, and it isn’t as though we had to do that in order to do the more positive policies,” she said.
It is also unclear just how much of a budgetary impact these changes will have. The CBO had estimated that the more restrictive changes to food stamps in the House Republican bill would have reduced federal deficits by about $11 billion over a decade. The agreement’s modifications will likely make a smaller dent in deficits.
In addition to changes to food stamps, the debt ceiling deal modifies work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash assistance to households with children.
To receive federal funding for the program under current law, states must prove that a certain percentage of adults in families receiving benefits are working, attending work training or participating in other approved “work activities.”
The agreement changes how states calculate those work participation rates and will make it more difficult for states to exempt families from the requirements, said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization. But the agreement also created a small pilot program for states to test alternative models.
“The research is clear on the ineffectiveness of work requirements and the hardships they cause for people that depend on the social safety net,” Hempstead said, adding that nonetheless, “this agreement avoids some of the worst outcomes.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.