Southerland Amendment Not a Normal “Work Requirement,” Would Reward States That Cut Unemployed Families Who Want to Work Off SNAP

June 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm

As I explained yesterday, the farm bill that the House wisely rejected yesterday included an unprecedented provision to reward governors with large sums of unrestricted cash if they cut families off the SNAP (food stamp) program because the parents, through no fault of their own, cannot find jobs.

Some news reports have incorrectly described the provision, which came in an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), as giving states the option to impose work requirements on SNAP recipients, as though there are no work requirements now.  That’s simply not correct.  The program has had work requirements for years.  The Southerland amendment is very different from a normal “work requirement.”

Work requirements in low-income programs require unemployed people to look for jobs, to accept any job offer, to participate in workforce or training programs if there is a slot available in a program, and the like.  If the individuals fail to comply with the requirements, they can be sanctioned by having their benefits cut or terminated.  The SNAP program also disqualifies people who quit a job.

This is not what the Southerland amendment would do.  It would allow states to end benefits for most adults who receive or apply for SNAP — including parents with young children and many people with disabilities — if they are not working or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.  The amendment provides no jobs and no funds for work or training programs, and it does not require states to make any work opportunities available.  People who want to work and are looking for a job but haven’t found one could be cut off.

That’s what makes this fundamentally different from a normal work requirement.  I have been working on SNAP for 41 years and have always supported reasonable work requirements.  There is a bright yellow line down the middle of the road between:  1) requiring people to try to find jobs, to take jobs that are offered, and not to quit jobs, and 2) denying benefits to people who do everything they can to get jobs but can’t find them and aren’t ever offered a work program or job training slot.  The former is reasonable.  The latter is not, and it should offend anyone with a sense of fairness and compassion.

To add insult to injury, the amendment gives states a powerful financial incentive to cut people and their children off simply because they can’t find work in a weak economy.  It allows states to keep half of the savings from cutting these people off and to use the money for whatever they want — tax cuts, special-interest subsidies, or anything else. Governors could help solve their budget problems by dropping unemployed people from SNAP.

Policymakers and the media should recognize the Southerland amendment for what it is:  an unprecedented and draconian benefit cut-off.  That’s why the measure aroused such passionate opposition.

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Robert Greenstein

Greenstein is the founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @GreensteinCBPP.

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