The Farm Bill Strengthens the Safety Net, Encourages Work, Promotes Upward Mobility, and Ensures Taxpayer Funds Are More Responsibly Spent

Next week, Congress is expected to take up H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018.

This legislation includes important reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and represents an important step forward in enacting welfare reform.

The 2018 farm bill includes important reforms to the SNAP program that will help ensure the program is achieving the goal of promoting upward mobility while simultaneously protecting the most vulnerable in our society. For instance:  

  • The farm bill requires requiring individuals on SNAP that are between ages 18 to 59 to work and/or participate in employment training for at least 20 hours per week (individuals with a disability, are pregnant, or are caretakers are exempt from this requirement).
  • The farm bill increase funds available for a work training program for SNAP recipients from $90 million to $1 billion per year. The plan also mandates that states provide a training slot to every work-eligible SNAP recipient. Estimates show that this would free one million Americans from government dependency over the next decade.
  • The farm bill establishes a Duplicative Enrollment Database to make sure recipients aren’t receiving SNAP benefits from multiple states.
  • The farm bill introduces a pilot program where food stores provide bonuses to SNAP households that buy fruits, vegetables and milk.

There is a clear need to reform the safety net. SNAP is just one example of the failure of government to provide a welfare program that works.

President Ronald Reagan famously said: “The Federal Government declared a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Unfortunately, this statement still rings true over three decades later.

Despite the trillions of dollars spent on welfare programs since President Johnson’s Great Society plan was enacted, the poverty rate in 2014 (14.8 percent) is actually worse than it was in 1966 (14.7 percent). Programs are still not helping Americans get out of poverty. 34 percent of Americans raised in the bottom fifth of income are still trapped there as adults.

Meanwhile, the costs of running these programs have skyrocketed. According to CBO, federal spending on welfare has nearly doubled between 2006 ($369 billion) to 2016 ($744 billion). Without reform, CBO projects that federal government spending on welfare will exceed $1 trillion by 2026.

Throwing billions of dollars at the problem has clearly failed to solve the problem. Instead, expensive, poorly-run government programs have kept low-income Americans from achieving the American dream for far too long.

In 2016, the Mercatus Center reported that 18 percent of Americans receive food stamps. Yet, only 1 percent of American households likely need them. As a result, the program costs about $70 billion per year. Further, there are currently more than 20 million able-bodied adults on SNAP, even though there are 6 million open jobs across America.

Interestingly, Governor Sam Brownback implemented similar work requirement reforms (and time limits) in the Kansas food stamp program in 2013.

The Foundation for Government Accountability studied the results in 2016 and found that the reforms were a success. Before the Kansas food stamp reforms, 1 in 5 able-bodied food stamp recipients worked, and 93 percent of them were in extreme poverty. After the reforms, 75 percent of the able-bodied adults in the program dropped out. 60 percent of able-bodied adults that no longer needed food stamps found jobs within 12 months. Further, their incomes rose by about 127 percent per year, and average income for able-bodied working adults is now above the poverty line. 

On the federal level, Kansas-style welfare reform centered on upward mobility would help low-income Americans move up the economic ladder by incentivizing work.

The Agriculture and Nutrition Act is far from perfect and lawmakers should continue to strengthen the bill by offering other common sense reforms, such as fixing the outdated, wasteful sugar subsidy.

Even so, the welfare reforms including in the Farm Bill represent a step in the right direction toward reducing poverty, encouraging work, fostering upward mobility, and ensuring taxpayer dollars are responsibly spent.