WASHINGTON- In June, Congress and President Joe Biden lifted from 49 to 55 the age through which low-income adults must work to qualify for grocery subsidies. Will congressional Republicans use the 2024 U.S. Farm Bill to raise that age higher?

“I don’t think you’ll see more work requirements,” Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas said outside the Senate chamber Tuesday. “I don’t think President Biden is for it, I don’t think House Democrats are for it, and the farm bill is not partisan. And Senate Democrats won’t go along with it.”

Negotiations over farm bill programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), sometimes called food stamps, are especially important for Arkansas, the state with the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation. And while the rules seem set for now, pressure to make it harder to access food benefits keeps coming from Republican leaders in Arkansas and beyond.

Democrats hold the majority in the Senate. And the chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, signaled she would not allow increased work requirements to make their way into the farm bill.

“As chair of the committee, we will not produce a bill in the Senate that will go further with that,” Stabenow said last week about the idea of increasing work requirements for older SNAP beneficiaries without dependents. “I’m not seeing any evidence that this, on policy, would be good for people. And I don’t intend to bring up or support a bill that would do that.”

Boozman, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, was noncommittal about his personal stance on adding more work requirements in exchange for food aid..

“I’m not going to negotiate the farm bill outside of the negotiations that I do in the committee,” he said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped feed 460,000 low-income Arkansans in 2022, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services. SNAP policy is set in the farm bill passed by Congress every five years, with the most recent 2018 Farm Bill expiring in September 2023 due to inertia in Congress.

According to the nonprofit Feeding America, one in six Arkansans faces food insecurity. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research Service similarly reports that between 2020 and 2022, 16.6% of Arkansans struggled with food insecurity.

While the number of Arkansans receiving SNAP benefits has decreased over the years, the level of food insecurity in Arkansas has increased. In fact, according to USDA, Arkansas has the highest percentage of households struggling with food insecurity in the country.

Food insecurity post-pandemic is rising in Arkansas and across the nation, according to the most recent data from the Department of Agriculture. Yet in Arkansas, only 66% of eligible people participated in SNAP.

"The biggest problem we've got is when you look at the programs we have, only half of [eligible] Arkansans participate," Boozman said. "So, I'm very concerned about that."

Eligibility Requirements in Flux:

To be eligible for SNAP benefits, adults between ages 18 and 49 without dependents must work or participate in a training program for at least 20 hours a week and meet low-income requirements. If an eligible adult for SNAP benefits between ages 18 and 49 does not meet the work requirement, that person will only be eligible for benefits for three months every three years. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP has "one of the most rigorous eligibility determination systems of any federal benefit program."

In June 2023, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated with President Biden to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a national debt default. In the deal, conservative Republicans successfully pushed stricter work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries into the law for adults without dependents aged 49 to 55, and Biden and Senate Democrats agreed. Over the next few years, the work requirements for adults without dependents between the ages of 49 and 55 will be phased in, and workers will need to meet the work requirement or lose their benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that these additional work requirements would save the United States $11 billion between 2022 and 2032, as more people lose their food benefits. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that 6,000 Arkansans could be at risk of losing SNAP benefits because of the stricter work requirements on older workers. Nationwide, close to 900,000 Americans could lose SNAP benefits.

House Republicans signaled their eagerness to cut SNAP benefits in March of 2023 with South Dakota Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson's proposed American Works Act. Arkansas Republican Rick Crawford, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, co-sponsored it, along with 46 other House Republicans.

The American Works Act would increase work requirements for adults without dependents between ages 49 and 64, going further than the deal Biden struck with McCarthy, and cutting the amount of SNAP beneficiaries by a range of 3 million to 3.5 million people a month nationwide, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Crawford's district, based in eastern and mostly rural Arkansas, has the highest rate of household poverty in the state, with 20% of households living below the poverty line. Accordingly, Crawford's district has the highest percentage of SNAP recipient households, at 14.4% of households in 2022. So the legislation Crawford is cosponsoring would likely take food off the table for many of his own constituents.

In 2022, more than 80,000 Arkansans aged 46-64 received SNAP benefits across the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

If the legislation gains traction in negotiations over the Farm Bill, and SNAP recipients between the ages of 49 and 64 have to start meeting work requirements to maintain their benefits—thousands more Arkansans currently enrolled in SNAP could have their benefits threatened.

Crawford's press secretary declined to comment on the America Works Act.

New leader, New Plan:

The work requirements issue is settled, in Stabenow's view.

"We agreed, the president and the speaker [Kevin McCarthy] agreed, to increase the age on work requirements and certain other things in the debt agreement, and that agreement was that there wouldn't be any further changes," she said.

But the House of Representatives has a new speaker now. Mike Johnson, R-La., is under immense pressure from Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives to make broad spending cuts.

Ultimately, with a divided Congress, House Republicans hold just as much bargaining power as Senate Democrats in negotiations.

Conservative pressure for large spending cuts has already led to the House being unable to strike a deal with Senate Democrats to pass appropriations for a full fiscal year. Instead, Congress passed a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government open until mid-March last week, while they continue to negotiate a full-year spending deal.

Boozman suggested he is more focused on fiscal responsibility in SNAP, though he also expressed concern over the high rate of food insecurity in his state.

"I'm more interested in the fact that the SNAP program overpayment rate is over $105 billion over 10 years," said Boozman. The overpayment rate is not a metric of fraud, but the high error rate does suggest that state agencies in Arkansas are making errors in determining payment amounts and eligibility for recipients.

The overpayment rate is the percentage of SNAP payments that were higher than their eligibility determined, such as when an individual receives SNAP payments when they are over the income threshold of the program.

In Arkansas the overpayment rate last year was 10.21%, having increased substantially since 2019, when the rate was 5.48%. The large increase in the overpayment rate over the last few years has received bipartisan condemnation as "unacceptable."

"The money needs to be going to the people it needs to be going to," said Boozman. "We've got a real problem. I'm very supportive of the Food Bank programs, as I visit with them, they are overwhelmed."

Published in conjunction with the Arkansas Times