More than 850,000 Oklahomans need help putting food on their table every year, and they get that help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In Oklahoma, SNAP helps people, including children, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and the working poor. It’s especially crucial in rural and small-town Oklahoma, where about 1 in 6 people rely on it. The money SNAP provides is spent in our grocery stores, contributing nearly $1 billion per year to our economy and keeping many communities from becoming food deserts. SNAP is the largest and most effective anti-hunger program in America, and its benefits extend beyond those who receive monthly benefits. SNAP works, and it works well — and yet it’s under attack.
In an unprecedented move last month, the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture passed a Farm Bill with the support of only one party. Historically, every Farm Bill, which includes SNAP rules and funding, has been voted out of committee with bipartisan support — including the 2014 bill championed by Oklahoma’s Rep. Frank Lucas. While it is concerning that the committee couldn’t reach bipartisan consensus, even more concerning is the huge negative impact that the proposed changes to SNAP within the Farm Bill will have on Oklahoma and our most vulnerable residents and communities.
Some of the most drastic changes in the committee bill relate to work requirements. SNAP already has a work requirement, but the new Farm Bill would require more families who need help affording food to meet more onerous requirements, and to do so more often. Most adults with children would now be required to work at least 20 hours per week, and prove that they’re doing so each month. For low-wage workers — the very people SNAP helps — this can be a huge hurdle, as these workers have little control over how many hours they’re scheduled to work. And hourly workers typically don’t get paid sick leave, meaning that staying home with a sick child for one or two days could put them below 20 hours. As a result, these new rules penalize people who are already working, by putting them at risk of losing the food assistance they need whenever they fail to meet the 20-hour requirement.
The new Farm Bill would also set severe penalties for failure to comply with the work requirement. Just one month without enough hours at work would cut adults in families that need SNAP from qualifying for assistance for 12 months. A second violation would result in another 36 months without food assistance. That’s a long time to go without help and will force Oklahoma families to make tradeoffs for essential resources every day: Do I pay the utility bill or buy groceries? Do I leave my children unsupervised while I work a second job? Will there be enough for me to eat after my children have been fed?
While the new Farm Bill would provide more funding for SNAP Employment and Training programs that, if done well, might be able to move people into more stable jobs, it’s not nearly enough to meet the need. The funding would equate to about $30 per needed job training slot each month. But it costs more like $7,500 to $14,000 per month per job trainee to operate an effective program that produces lasting results, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In fact, most of the increased funding will be necessary to meet the administrative functions needed to implement these new requirements.
The bottom line is this: In its current form, the new Farm Bill will put nearly 97,000 Oklahomans and their families at risk of losing their food and nutrition benefits. The basic assistance SNAP provides is crucial to Oklahoma families. As organizations on the front line of hunger in Oklahoma, we know that charity cannot fill the gaps these changes will create. For every one meal provided through Oklahoma’s network of food banks, SNAP provides 12 meals. Therefore, Oklahomans helping Oklahomans alone cannot solve the crisis this Farm Bill would create. We urge you to join us in calling for a better bill. Please call your congressmen today and ask them to vote against these unproven and risky changes to a program that works to put food on the table for struggling Oklahoma families.
Chris Bernard is executive director, Hunger Free Oklahoma. Eileen Bradshaw is executive director, Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. Courtney Cullison is a policy analyst, Oklahoma Policy Institute. Katie Fitzgerald is chief executive officer, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.