Sabrina Christ is 59 years old and receives about $300 a month in food-stamp benefits for herself and her 16-year-old granddaughter. She works odd jobs for cash, cleaning houses and doing yard work and such, but has struggled to find even a part-time job. When supplies get low, she uses local food pantries.
“I am capabIe and able-bodied,” said Christ, a resident of Midland, Texas. “But I don’t know if I haven’t been picked up for a job because of my age or I just didn’t have anything to offer them.”
The House farm bill would expand to age 59 the current requirement that adults up to age 49 work or participate in job training or educational activities as a prerequisite for food stamps. The new age requirements would begin in 2021.
Christ and advocates for the poor say it will be harder for people in their 50s to find work because employers often shun older workers.
“At that age, they’re going through the same struggles that I’m going through,” Christ said. “People are seeing us as a liability.”
The House farm bill, which overhauls the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, has a long way to go and significant changes are likely before it becomes law. The Senate has yet to write its own version of the bill and House conservatives, advocates for limited government spending and influential donors like Charles and David Koch object to continued -- and greatly expanded -- spending for what they believe are ineffective training programs.
Advocates for people like Christ say SNAP recipients in their 50s who lose their benefits because they can’t meet proposed new work requirements could go hungry, or have to rely more on local charities like food pantries.
That’s because two-thirds of SNAP recipients in their 50s live alone and it typically takes longer for older people, like Christ, to find work. And while the bill provides a ten-fold funding increase for education and training programs, from $90 million to $1 billion over three years, experts say the extra money isn't enough to cover all those who will need it.
The additional $910 million would come from projected savings from benefit cuts over 10 years, assuming that eventually the people who found jobs would leave the food-stamp program. The education and training activity – which would count toward the proposed work requirement - allows SNAP participants to get GEDs, post-secondary education and job skills training, depending on their needs.
The SNAP program currently requires able-bodied adults without dependents between 18- and 49-years-old to either work 20 hours per week or participate in 20 hours a week of education and training in order to receive benefits .
The House bill would expand those requirements to able-bodied recipients ages 50 to 59. Those who don’t comply would lose benefits for one year after the first violation and for three years after future violations. To regain program eligibility under the proposal, recipients must either meet the work requirement for a full month or receive an exemption for disability or other reasons.
But they could not regain their education and training slot after a violation, said the bill's sponsor, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas. In those instances, “work cures the problem,” he said.
“They can’t get back into a training program, but they can go to work. That cures it,” Conaway said. “I’m not too keen on softening that up because I want people to be serious about staying in these programs. ... I want this to be a meaningful opportunity for people that they take seriously.”
SNAP’s enrollment swelled to a record 47.6 million people in 2013 following the 2008 recession. But enrollment has fallen every year since and now sits at 40.7 million as more people find jobs in the expanding economy. The government reported Friday that the unemployment rate was down to 3.9 percent.
President Donald Trump noted that in a tweet recently: “Here’s a great stat - since January 2017, the number of people forced to use food stamps is down 1.9 million. The American people are finally back to work!”
The robust job market is driving Trump’s push to add or toughen work requirements for federal assistance programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, SNAP and public housing. Supporters say the measures will improve participants’ work ethic and help nudge people toward self-sufficiency.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the farm bill would cut more than $20 billion in SNAP benefits over 10 years. That includes $9.2 billion in reduced spending due to the work requirement. Last year, SNAP benefits topped $63.7 billion.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that a total of 1 million SNAP households with 2 million people could lose their benefits because of the work requirement.
In 2016, more than 4 million SNAP households had an eligible adult in their 50s, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
And more than 2.7 million of these households - 68 percent - were single-person homes where people would be more vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity if nutritional assistance is lost, said Marci Phillips, director of public policy and advocacy at the National Coalition on Aging.
Since many of these lone residents are on fixed incomes, Phillips said a loss of SNAP benefits would force them to cut back on other items.
“It’s a tradeoff, Phillips said. “Are they either going to forgo medications? Or are they going to cut pills in half? Or are they going to be able to keep the lights on?....They have no other safety net if they are the only person in the household and they don’t have other resources to make ends meet.”
Conaway said the bill gives states more power to decide who can get waivers if they can't find work. Under the bill, states can seek waivers to the work requirements for 15 percent of their eligible population, including older people, at any time. In addition, waivers for the work requirement will remain in place for areas with high unemployment.
“If they’ve got some reason why they can’t work, then the state will have to figure that out,” Conaway said of older workers. “I understand the concern, but with states having the ability to do a much better job with better tools to manage their work-capable population, I think these things will get worked out.”
If people feel their benefits have been unfairly sanctioned, they can show "good cause" why they haven't complied, citing things like transportation problems, child care complications or other valid reasons, said Rachel Millard, the Republican agriculture committee spokesperson. State officials will make the final determination, she said.
Navigating the job market after losing benefits could be particularly challenging for older SNAP recipients.
Last year, the average job seeker between ages 45 to 54 was unemployed for more than 31 weeks before finding another job, according to federal Bureau of Labor statistics. For those ages 55 to 64, it was nearly 37 weeks.
The farm bill aims to guarantee a training or education slot for all SNAP recipients who need it to help them find a job. About 700,000 SNAP recipients currently participate in education or training, but the CBPP estimates that 3 million annual slots will be needed if the work requirement is enacted.
That works out to about $300 a year in funding per slot, even though “meaningful job training, skill-building and other such employment services cost $3,000 to $14,000 a slot,” a CBPP analysis noted.
The funding shortfall means “it wouldn’t be the kind of meaningful training that we’ve seen people need to develop their skills,” said Melissa Johnson, senior state policy analyst at the National Skills Coalition.
She said 53 percent of U.S. jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, but only 43 percent of workers are trained to that level.
Millard said the CBPP estimate of 3 million training slots is high. Committee Republicans project up to 2.5 million slots will be needed annually, she said.
And not every participant will need expensive training, Millard said. Those who have job skills, but simply fell on hard times, can find work with only four to six weeks of job search activities, she said.
For SNAP staffers, tracking participants' work hours each week to ensure their compliance with work rules could be administratively cumbersome, said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center.
And requiring SNAP recipients, particularly older ones, to prove they’ve worked 20 hours per week is also asking for trouble, he said.
“Even people who are busting their asses to run down every job they can and are juggling two part-time jobs are not going to be able to prove to the satisfaction of the bureaucracy on a consistent basis that they’ve been doing 20 hours a week,” Weill said.