By Leah Douglas
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Changes to the largest U.S. food aid program in the debt deal passed by Congress this week could force hundreds of thousands of older Americans off of federal food aid and bury other applicants in new paperwork, food security experts warned.
Eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) became a lightning rod in negotiations of the debt deal. Food banks nationwide have been struggling to meet rising demand as low-income Americans shoulder higher grocery costs while COVID-era benefits have expired.
The debt plan passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday and by the Senate on Thursday contains work requirements to get food benefits. The measure would exempt veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and young adults aging out of foster care, provided they can prove their status.
It would also expand those work requirements to adults aged 50 to 54, a group that had previously been exempted. That change would affect nearly 750,000 people, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The White House, which has endorsed the deal as a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, has said SNAP enrollment will be about the same once the changes are fully implemented.
Republicans argued during negotiations that expanding work requirements would help more SNAP recipients get jobs and reduce their dependence on federal aid.
Some progressive lawmakers cited the work requirement issue as their reason for not supporting the debt deal. Anti-hunger advocates argue the new hurdles for older Americans will cause many to lose benefits, while the newly exempted groups could struggle to navigate complex bureaucracy to prove their status.
People aged 50 to 54, for instance, could have health conditions that limit their ability to meet the new requirement to work 20 hours per week, said Ty Jones Cox, vice president for food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Veterans and homeless people may have difficulty collecting proper documentation to prove their exemptions as part of the complex, state-by-state process of securing SNAP benefits, said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center.
“This will be a very heavy lift for case workers,” she said. “It’s going to be very confusing.”
THE WORK DEBATE
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who led Republican negotiations for the debt deal, has said the expanded work requirements will push more adults to work and thereby strengthen the economy. Anti-hunger groups say the research does not support that conclusion.
In a 2022 report, the Congressional Budget Office found that SNAP’s work requirements reduced overall income of recipients because the amount of work required made them ineligible for SNAP based on income.
Kofi Kenyatta, director of policy and practice at UpTogether, a nonprofit that aims to reform poverty programs, called work requirements “arbitrary and really cruel.”
Currently, SNAP recipients aged 18 to 49 without dependents or disabilities must work 20 hours per week to receive benefits for more than three months over a three-year period. The changes would boost that upper age limit to 54.
Colleen Young, director of government affairs for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, anticipates that demand will rise for her organization’s services and food pantry as the debt plan is implemented.
The food bank is already over budget as it distributes the second-highest number of pounds of free food in its history, a common tale among emergency food providers as inflation hammers household budgets.
“It’s going to be a strain,” Young said.
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