The Leaflet: Farm Bill Needs a Makeover

Published May 3, 2018

The deadline for Congress to reauthorize the “farm bill” is fast approaching. The current farm bill, signed in 2014 by President Barack Obama, is 357 pages long and authorized $957 billion through 2024. It includes farm subsidies, rural development, environmental conservation, food assistance, as well as the all-important Christmas Tree Promotion Board. Thankfully, the bill expires September 30.

The first farm bill, known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), was passed during the Great Depression under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. The original bill included provisions such as government subsidies to farmers for not growing crops and government purchases of livestock for slaughter. As the government was artificially boosting prices, reducing crop yields, and destroying livestock, millions of Americans were struggling to put food on the table.

Eighty-four years later (and well beyond the end of the Great Depression), each new iteration of the farm bill has grown in size and scope. For instance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), created during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in 1964, initially appropriated $75 million in benefits to 350,000 Americans. SNAP, also known as food stamps, now engulfs more than 75 percent of the farm bill’s annual budget. In 2016, SNAP doled out benefits to approximately 44.2 million people (44 percent were children) at a cost of $70.9 billion to taxpayers. Although there has been a steady decline in SNAP participation since 2013, there are now almost 18 million more individuals receiving food stamps than there were in 2007.

SNAP’s skyrocketing costs, coupled with a surging economy and record-low unemployment rate, has put the program under intense scrutiny from many who believe lax eligibility guidelines should be strengthened to increase self-reliance and decrease government dependence.

The proposed farm bill addresses this basic concern by increasing work requirements on able-bodied adults, except those who are pregnant or care for children under age six. The bill would also mandate adults aged 18–59 work or participate in a job training program for at least 20 hours per week to receive benefits. Beginning in 2026, the work and job training requirements would increase to at least 25 hours per week. Currently, adults over age 50 and those who have a dependent child are exempt from work mandates.

So-called “lock-out provisions” would also be strengthened. For example, recipients who fail to meet work requirements one time would be ineligible to receive benefits for 12 months and ineligible for 36 months for subsequent violations. The U.S. House of Representatives estimates these reforms would affect between five million and seven million food stamp recipients and about one million of them would move off the program over the next decade.

States that have enacted similar work requirements for their SNAP programs have a proven track record of success. Just three months after Maine required able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) to work or participate in job training programs, the state’s food stamp caseload plummeted nearly 80 percent, from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015. In 2016, Georgia imposed work requirements that resulted in a steep 62 percent reduction of ABAWD on the Peach State’s welfare rolls. After Alabama enacted similar work requirements on ABAWD in 2017, SNAP recipients dropped 85 percent.

The Heartland Institute champions work requirements because they reduce government spending and encourage economic independence—just as the majority of Americans do. Other worthy SNAP reforms include eliminating state waivers that exempt recipients from work requirements, structuring requirements so they don’t inadvertently penalize married couples, and giving states flexibility in administering their SNAP programs. Hopefully, Congress will include some of these commonsense reforms into the 2018 version of the farm bill.


What We’re Working On

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Health Care
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