Trump Voters Would Be Hit Hardest by GOP's Food Stamp Rules

(Bloomberg) -- A House Republican plan to set stricter work rules for food stamp recipients would disproportionately affect low-income residents in states that supported Donald Trump for president and may imperil passage of farm legislation.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, said after a White House meeting with Trump on Thursday that the president "is keen on work requirements being a part" of the bill and offered to help pass a plan.

"The president wants to deliver a farm bill this year," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Thursday. "He also has a strong belief in the work requirements."

The plan so far doesn’t have enough Republican votes to pass the House, according to Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which wants even stricter work requirements. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the chamber plans to consider the legislation next week.

The GOP is divided about how far the work rules should go as the party campaigns to keep its majorities in the House and Senate in November’s elections. The Senate, which needs to approve its own plan before negotiating with the House on a final package, is less likely to sign off on new work requirements.

The farm bill reauthorizes all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly called food stamps. The plan sent to the House floor by the Agriculture Committee on a party-line vote last month would shift some money spent on benefits to workforce training.

Worker Shortages

Republicans say the requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats oppose those provisions because they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork requirements.

A Bloomberg analysis shows that 12.9 percent of residents of states that backed Trump in 2016 used food stamps in February, the most recent month for which data are available, compared with 11.4 percent in states won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. That amounts to 23.8 million people in Trump states compared with 16.2 million in Clinton territory.

Residents of non-metropolitan counties, which gave 66 percent of their votes to Trump in 2016, are 18 percent more likely to participate in the food-stamp program than city-dwellers, according to a study by the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which backs greater funding for anti-poverty programs in rural areas.

"One in four rural children lives in poverty," said Dee Davis, the organization’s president. "The president’s response is to withhold food."

Trump Voters Would Be Hit Hardest by GOP's Food Stamp Rules

The House measure would raise from 49 to 59 the age at which able-bodied adults would be required to work or participate in a training program for 20 hours a week. The plan also adds work requirements for households that include children 6 and older. Recipients between ages 18 and 59 with children above age 6 who don’t comply with the work requirement would lose an annual benefit of about $1,800 on average by 2028, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

About 40 million Americans were using food stamps in February, down 5.3 percent from the previous year and the lowest since March 2010, according to the USDA.

Tightened work rules have support among social and fiscal conservatives. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said tight work-eligibility rules are necessary to discourage a "lifestyle" of welfare dependence.

Parke Wilde, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, said criticizing the SNAP program is a way to signal disapproval of social-welfare initiatives. Even if those recipients are Trump voters, "there’s political mileage in just criticizing SNAP," he said. "There’s concern about people loafing while on government assistance."

Farm bills, which also include agricultural subsidies, traditionally are passed by a coalition of rural Republicans and welfare-supporting Democrats, meaning Trump’s position may make it more difficult for any bill to pass Congress, Wilde said.

"Support for farm programs and nutrition assistance requires a little bit of cross-sector dialogue," he said. "It isn’t well-served by appealing to one group of food-stamp haters."

Trump’s support for work rules could be a "huge help" to gaining passage in the House, especially among lawmakers worried about farm subsidy spending, said Conaway. But it may complicate approval of any farm bill in the Senate, which would need to reconcile its plan with a House version to craft a final law for the president to sign.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who attended the White House meeting with Conaway and Perdue, has yet to propose a bill in that chamber. The discussion with Trump was "productive," said his spokeswoman, Meghan Cline.

Roberts has said he’ll seek bipartisan support for the measure, given the greater power of Democrats in the Senate, controlled by the GOP 51-49.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.