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Hunger Beat

After midterm elections, the future of Farm Bill and SNAP still hangs in balance

By Greg Trotter

Food assistance for hundreds of thousands of adults in Illinois remains imperiled because of proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which could still be part of Farm Bill negotiations in the coming weeks.

“The mid-term election did not change the risk to SNAP in the next two months. It’s more important than ever that we protect SNAP,” said Alicia Huguelet, senior director of public policy for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

The House Farm Bill, passed in June by a slim majority of House Republicans, seeks to expand existing work requirements for those receiving SNAP benefits, also referred to as food stamps. The bill would also limit state flexibility to raise the income threshold to help support more working families, among other changes. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is opposed to those proposed changes, which would make it more difficult for low-income people to get the assistance they need.

“At a high level, they’re just cuts that are going to hurt people across the spectrum,” Huguelet said.

Instead, the Food Depository supports the Senate version, which was passed in bipartisan fashion and avoids harming households receiving food assistance. Despite Democrats taking control of the House last week, the proposed SNAP changes included in the House version of the Farm Bill could still be up for negotiation as lawmakers from the House and Senate try to hammer out a deal in the so-called lame duck session before the end of the year.

The previous Farm Bill expired in late September.

Huguelet considers passage of a new Farm Bill before January to be uncertain.  But the end result, not the timing, is what matters most, she said. A farm bill that takes away food assistance from people in need is unacceptable.

More than 42 million Americans – including nearly 1.9 million in Illinois – receive SNAP benefits. The majority of them are children, older adults and people with disabilities. Most able-bodied adults who receive SNAP benefits work in some capacity during the course of a year, but many would struggle to meet the expanded work requirements because of health-related issues, according to an economic analysis released last month by the Hamilton Project, an initiative of the Brookings Institution.

“Among those who are in the labor force, spells of unemployment are either due to job-related concerns or health issues. Very few reported that they were not working due to lack of interest,” according to the analysis.

SNAP already requires many recipients to work 20 hours a week, though some states, including Illinois, have applied for waivers from that requirement, particularly in areas of high unemployment. The House Farm Bill would require able-bodied adults to work through age 59. More parents of young children would also have to work.

Perhaps even more damaging, the House Farm Bill would limit the ability of states to raise the income eligibility cutoff to help more working families that may live in higher cost-of-living areas, said Craig Gundersen, professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“SNAP is an anti-hunger program. It’s not designed to bring people into the workforce,” Gundersen said. “If I believed that SNAP was discouraging people from working, I’d be willing to consider changes to the structure of the program. But it really isn’t.”

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