Editorials

Is Congress going to cut food stamps for hungry people and then skip town?

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For almost two years, we have argued against increasing the work requirements for Americans who depend on food assistance to feed themselves and their families.

Today, as Americans sit down to enjoy a time of thanks with friends and family, the reasons to reject food stamp work requirements are even more urgent.

Negotiations are still in progress for a five-year farm bill that will eventually be voted on by both houses of Congress. The House-passed version of this legislation included the food stamp work requirement, while the Senate bill did not.

The House measure would cut spending on food stamps $20 billion during the next decade. It would require able-bodied adults to work at least 20 hours a week or get training.

Democrats in the Senate have vowed to filibuster any bill with additional work restrictions, and Republicans — notably Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas — have urged negotiators to drop the provision. That’s even more important now since the incoming House will be controlled by Democrats, who undoubtedly will oppose the food stamp work rules.

There were signs last week that House Republicans were prepared to capitulate. They should do so soon.

There is pressure to finish the bill in the lame duck session. If negotiators can’t reach agreement, and Congress fails to consider the bill, it will die when the current Congress adjourns for good. The new Congress would have to start again.

But farm bills have been delayed before. And it would be unconscionable to add a work requirement opposed by incoming House members, as well as the Democrats in the Senate, just to get something done before an artificial deadline.

There are indications that the White House could impose the requirements by regulation. That would be unacceptable — and would provide more evidence the administration cares little about the legislative process.

Food stamp spending is on the decline across the nation. In July, 38.9 million Americans used food stamp benefits, according to the Agriculture Department; that’s down from 40.9 million Americans a year earlier. A healthy economy and low unemployment rate are much more effective at getting people back to work and off of food stamps than work requirements.

In July, the average benefit was $123.50 per person. For a month. That’s hardly excessive. And remember: Federal law already requires able-bodied adults without children to work for food stamp assistance.

Roberts is right when he says the farm bill is supposed to protect farmers and the nation’s food supply. It shouldn’t be a vehicle for making social policy, particularly when voters just told the House they’re doing it wrong.

The options are easy: The farm bill conference committee should drop the food stamp work rules, and the lame duck Congress can pass the measure. Alternatively, the conference can drop the bill and both houses can debate a different version next year.

What Congress should not do is cut food benefits for hungry people, then skip town. On Thanksgiving, that guidance should be top of mind.

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