Congress approved testing food aid reforms. An impatient House GOP won't wait for results

Four years ago, the Republican-dominated House okayed spending millions on experimental programs to aid low-income Americans in finding work and no longer depending on the nation's food aid program.

It promised to evaluate whether the experiment was a success in 2019, and so far, there are indicators the programs have had positive effects.

Yet House Republicans today are moving quickly to revamp the food aid program nationwide, less than a year before reports on the effectiveness of experimental programs are available.

The proposed changes could make millions ineligible for aid if they don't follow stricter work requirements. No studies are available yet on how increased work requirements benefit taxpayers in these programs.

"If they're going to make major changes to the system, they should wait to see what we're getting out of these pilot programs," said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for National Skills Coalition, which advocates for investments in workforce training.

"They could put in additional funding to expand these programs in the meantime, but it's worth seeing results of these programs before making significant changes," he added.

House Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee made similar points.

"The whole purpose of the pilot programs was to determine what works and what didn't work," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., echoing the concerns of several Democrats on the committee. Costa voted to approve the 2014 bill that included the experimental programs.

"Normally you try to figure out what works, and then you make changes," he said.

The House plan is contained in a sweeping farm bill that makes big changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's employment and training requirements. While it gives the program more money, it also puts new restrictions on who can get help. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, provides resources for lower-income families to buy food.

The new plan comes as the GOP-backed experiment adopted four years ago continues. It gave up to $200 million to 10 pilot programs spread throughout Kansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi as well as sites near Atlanta, Georgia and Fresno, California.

Democrats are adamant about stopping the proposed changes, and could have enough support in rural states and affected areas..

"The way I do things, you prove your case and then you make a decision, and that's how Congress should do it," said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.

He called it a disservice to both SNAP recipients and American taxpayers and said Republicans are asking them to "convict based on a lack of evidence."

Three of the pilot programs mandate that SNAP recipients who qualify participate in work training in order to continue receiving their benefits, while seven are on a voluntary basis.

While there have been preliminary reports to Congress on their progress, including strengths and challenges, the first comprehensive report on the effectiveness of the experimental programs isn't due until March 2019, with a longer-term report due in April 2021. Those reports will evaluate the outcomes of the programs, including their effectiveness at at helping SNAP recipients find stable employment and get off public assistance.

Program officials are not allowed to speak about the results of their pilots until the final report is finished, even to Congress.

At the time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture praised the pilots, saying they would "test new strategies to determine the most effective ways to help SNAP recipients gain and retain employment that leads to self-sufficiency."

But Republicans in the House Agriculture Committee aren't waiting on those reports before they revamp SNAP work requirements.

Under the new farm bill plan, able-bodied SNAP recipients between ages 18 and 59 would have to either work or participate in some sort of education or work training for 20 hours per week in order to continue receiving SNAP benefits starting in 2021.

SNAP work requirement programs are funded at about $90 million per year now, excluding the pilot programs, and funding would increase to $1 billion by 2021.

Find out what is being done to combat these nutritional wastelands on a trip to Philadelphia with First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Tom Vilsack. (Feb. 24, 2010)

Republican committee aides said the changes are about getting SNAP recipients working while there are 6.1 million available jobs nationwide.

Republican Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is interested in looking at the final reports in 2021, but wanted to "forge ahead" in the meantime. About 10 percent of households in Conaway's district receive SNAP benefits, according to USDA reports.

"I think the chairman was at the point that it was time to extend the opportunities to as many people as possible, as opposed to perpetuating very selective pilot programs, and not waiting another five years to help poor people," they said.

Democrats were skeptical of this explanation. Panetta said when the committee was considering the farm bill that he called the California agency that administers SNAP benefits, CalFresh, to get its take on the new work requirements.

He said the bill would require CalFresh to increase work training slots from 100,000 to 1 million within two years, and CalFresh officials described the bill as "unworkable" and "will not achieve its intended outcomes."

"The CalFresh staff that I spoke to — they had no idea how this could be done given how little funding they would receive per training slot," Panetta said.

Costa said the purpose of the programs shouldn't be getting people into jobs just when the economy is good anyway, but into sustainable jobs they'll have long-term.

Pete Weber, the director of one of the award-winning pilot programs, Fresno Bridge Academy in California, which was praised by a House agriculture subcommittee in 2016, said he supports Republicans expanding this program but they either need to give it more funding or more time. Though he can't speak about the pilot program specifically, he said his regular program that has been operational since 2010 and operates similarly to the pilot has had high rates of success.

"If our goal, as a nation, is to make these people self-reliant, then we need to properly fund the programs that are proven to work, and give them time to implement changes," Weber said. "This would be a big ramp up from where we are today, and two years is pretty abrupt."

While he didn't want to comment on the Republican work plan, he said he preferred his program remain voluntary.The latest report to Congress on the experimental programs said exit rates are substantially higher on mandatory programs.

He said the Fresno Bridge Academy is highly cost-effective. About 77 percent of those who enroll graduate, with nearly all of the graduates getting stable employment.

"Frankly, the success rate is going to be much higher if the people who enroll are people who want to be here," Weber said. "You want to spend resources on people who are going to get outcomes."

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby