July 22, 1996


by Robert Greenstein

On July 18, the House approved, by a vote of 239-184, the most severe food stamp cut approved by either house of Congress in the history of the food stamp program. The amendment would limit food stamp assistance provided to people between the ages of 18 and 50 who are not disabled or raising children to three months out of their adult lifetimes up to age 50, except for months in which they are working at least half time or in a workfare slot. The amendment provides no new funding for workfare slots, however, and Congressional Budget Office estimates show it would deny food stamps to hundreds of thousands of poor, unemployed individuals who are willing to work without offering them an opportunity to work.

A factory worker who worked for 10 years and then was laid off when a plant closed would be ineligible for food stamps if the individual had received food stamps for three months during a recession 10 years earlier, except in the unlikely case that a workfare slot opened up. The individual would have exhausted his or her three months of food stamps 10 years earlier. This provision would be suspended if the unemployment rate surpassed 10 percent, but that is a level which few areas of the country reach even during the depths of a recession.

The provision would cause serious hardship among individuals who have been working hard, playing by the rules, and paying their taxes but who then lose a job and need temporary assistance while they look for new employment. The provision would deny food stamps to workers whose taxes helped support the food stamp program over the years but then need assistance themselves when they lose their jobs due to no fault of their own.

Food stamp data show that more than 40 percent of those who would be affected by this provision are women. Nearly one-third are over the age of 40, an age above which individuals with limited skills often have difficulty finding employment quickly. This provision would likely hit hardest at unemployed workers in small towns or rural areas who lose their jobs when a plant closes or downsizes, because there may be only a limited number of new employment opportunities and few — if any — workfare slots available in the area.

A CBO analysis last year of a similar, but somewhat less harsh provision in the original House welfare bill estimated there would be fewer than one workfare slot available for every 10 individuals who would be terminated from the food stamp program without a work slot. CBO estimated that in an average month, nearly one million poor individuals who would take a workfare slot if it were made available would be denied food stamps because no slot was made available.

This amendment replaced a provision in the welfare bill that already was tougher than any previous provision in the food stamp program's history. The provision previously in the bill would have limited the provision of food stamps to individuals aged 18 to 50 who are not disabled or raising children to four months out of the year, except for months in which they are employed at least half-time or in a workfare slot — and would have done so without providing new funding for workfare slots. The amendment adopted on the House floor, however, limits food stamp receipt during months of unemployment to three months in the 32-year period between the ages 18 and 50.

The Administration's welfare bill, the bipartisan Castle-Tanner bill, and the Daschle bill in the Senate all reject the harsh approach embodied both in the amendment and in the bill as it stood before the amendment was adopted. The proposals in these three alternative bills would limit food stamp assistance to this group of individuals to six months out of the year, except for months in which these individuals are working, but would require that these individuals be offered workfare slots. People who refuse to work would be terminated, but people would not be cut adrift without being given an opportunity to work.

Supporters of the amendment passed on the House floor have sought to portray it as toughening work requirements, contending that individuals will simply have to perform 20 hours of work a week to get food stamps. Such statements are misleading; this provision provides no new funding for workfare and is not a workfare or work amendment. To the contrary, it is a cut-off amendment that denies assistance to poor, laid-off workers trying to find new jobs.

The amendment also is described by some of its supporters as being only what the House approved when it passed its initial welfare bill in early 1995. That also is incorrect. Under the original House bill, individuals could continue receiving food stamps while participating in rigorous job search programs. But under the amendment the House adopted last week, unemployed individuals participating in rigorous job search programs would be denied food stamps if at any previous time since their 18th birthday they have received food stamps for three months while being unemployed.