The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday invited two public policy experts into a hearing to review the past, present and future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, part of the farm bill.
Robert Greenstein, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, discussed the program's history and trajectory of the program as related to the U.S. economy.
As the largest program under the committee's jurisdiction, Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the hearing kicks of a broad "top to bottom" review that will be completed "without preconceived notions and with a commitment to strengthening the program."
Conversation in the hearing focused largely on participants' income, work requirements and demographics as well as the program's relation to other federal aid like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
On work requirements and the overall role of SNAP, panelist Greenstein stressed that the nature of the program has changed, moving from a welfare program to a wage support program.
"We have a larger share of people making lower wages and needing SNAP to help with their wages," Greenstein explained of the number of individuals and families in the program, which reached peak enrollment during the recession of the late 2000s.
That said, he explained that the there are very different people on SNAP with different needs. For some, he stressed, "the problem is their wages are low, they need a supplement."
He later suggested that raising the minimum wage would reduce the number of families and individuals in the program, and may also limit the amount of SNAP benefits.
Aside from wage changes, Besharov said that actually, too few members of the eligible workforce as a whole are working. This low labor force participation is serious problem, he said.
"SNAP and other income or means-tested programs have to adjust to this reality," he said.
According to Greenstein, SNAP has strongest work requirement of many assistance programs; Between now and 2016, about 1 million recipients will be removed due to expiring work requirement waivers.
He suggested job training's role in SNAP has been overlooked. "We have some billions of dollars in the workforce training system and it's largely bypassing SNAP recipients," he said.
Besharov also underscored a commitment to employment and employment training. "We have to nudge people, we have to prepare them for the labor force," he said.
Despite the discussion, Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he still takes issue with the fact that some states are using TANF guidelines to determine who gets benefits under SNAP.
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He said the geographic disparity in treatment of enrolled families and individuals is a problem. "We treat people differently in different parts of the country, and I don't think that's right," Peterson said, referencing regional work requirement waivers that were put in place at the height of the recession.
Peterson welcomed the review, but said changes on the SNAP program are already in place. "I don't think we should do anything," Peterson said, referencing the lengthy discussion on the program and eventual agreement that took place during farm bill negotiations.
Read full testimony of Chairman Conaway, Greenstein and Besharov on the House Ag Committee website.