House Farm Bill Doubles Down on TANF’s Mistakes

Even when I was a single mother facing homelessness, applying to receive cash assistance from the state never felt like a feasible option.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) goes by many names depending on the state where you’re applying for services, but the basics are the same: Recipients are assigned caseworkers and they report their progress — as often as weekly — to show that they are participating in approved work-related activities for the required number of hours. TANF means constant check-ins and a complete loss of autonomy in any chosen career path for little in return. Cash assistance amounts are detrimentally low — sometimes less than $200 a month.

In the new Farm Bill proposed by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Conaway’s mission is to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) to mirror the TANF program. Congressional Democrats adamantly argued against making such changes, which would reduce the number of people who can get the food assistance they need.

Conaway’s Farm Bill would make SNAP’s current work requirements even harsher. Nearly any non-disabled adult under age 60 who isn’t able to work 20 hours every week would only receive benefits for three months every three years. If they’re raising a child age 6 or older, they would still be subject to the new rules. If they’re unemployed or working a job that isn’t assigning them enough hours, tough luck. Much like TANF, people would need to check in monthly or risk losing their food benefits for 12 months for their first “failure to comply,” and 36 months for their second. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY) says that that this policy is simply “a backdoor way to kick people off the program.”

Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) argued against the changes several times in the committee’s nearly six-hour meeting on the bill. “You need to understand what you’re doing,” he pleaded. “When we put the work requirements into TANF and SNAP, one of the biggest problems is lack of flexibility.”

When I applied for TANF in 2007, I had to attend work preparation classes that were several hours long. Even though I’d worked full-time for more than 10 years, I had to learn how to write a resume, how to go online and look for jobs, and I was told I should consider a career as a secretary or a baker. I had to mark these career paths on a sheet, and tell my caseworker my plan to pursue those fields, even though that wasn’t my interest. Higher education, even at the local community college, wasn’t an option. All of this seemed for show, and a waste of everyone’s time, since I was a month away from giving birth to my first child and determined to be a writer.

Seven years later, as a possible TANF applicant again, I now had a bachelor’s degree. I’d still have to attend those same classes, but with the added stress of finding a child care facility that would accept TANF’s payments for my daughter to attend. Midway through reading the thick packet of paperwork my caseworker had mailed me to apply, I called to ask how much money I’d receive each month as a family of three. “Probably about 80 dollars more than your child support,” she said with a sigh. “It’s probably not even worth it for you to apply.” (If a custodial parent is already receiving a monthly amount in child support, the state reroutes the payments to the agency, and pays the participant directly instead.)

“Okay,” I told my caseworker, tucking the papers back into the manila envelope before I tossed it into the trash. I was not only a qualified applicant, but one the program was supposed to help. Yet TANF’s maze of paperwork is so incredibly difficult to work through that many people, like me, are discouraged before they even begin.

House Democrats voiced their concerns that Conaway’s Farm Bill would similarly overburden SNAP recipients and program administrators if it switched to running as a work program instead of a food program. The amount of paperwork that people would be required to file on a monthly basis — and that caseworkers would need to process — would require new systems, new employees, and training. While House Democrats argued that more than 2 million people would be kicked off SNAP or have their benefits reduced, and 265,000 kids would consequently lose automatic access to free meals at school, that wouldn’t be the end of the suffering — the travesty would continue as more people would lose benefits due to misplaced paperwork or being unable to meet a new work requirement due to a lack of transportation, or child care, or caring for a family member, or any number of reasons.

“States will be unable to provide the services expected of them. And rather than take on the cost of serving their clients … it’s very likely states will take the steps to cut them off all together,” says Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH).

Despite reports that more than half of households receiving SNAP are working households — a number that jumps to 80 percent in the years before and after qualifying for food benefits — Conaway wants to force recipients to provide proof that they are worthy of getting help with food. That they are, essentially, “legitimately poor.”

Fudge argued that a better approach would be to raise the minimum wage, noting that cafeteria employees in the building where the committee met that day made less than $2,000 a month, and therefore qualified for SNAP. “In fact,” she added, “raising the minimum wage to just $12 an hour would save about $53 billion in SNAP over 10 years.”

House Republicans on the committee didn’t seem to want to hear that side of the argument, though. Instead, by turning SNAP into a program like TANF, the amount of people able to get food assistance would dwindle. One can only assume that perhaps that’s the whole point.