The Agriculture Committees of Congress was established in 1820 in the House and 1825 in the Senate. Today, the legislative responsibility of these committees is a significant package of agriculture, conservation, rural development, research, and food assistance known as the farm bill. This doesn't solely affect farmers but consumers and ultimately the general population.

The Farm Bill has to be renewed every five years, and currently two versions of the legislation have worked their way through Congress -- the partisan Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 in the House and the bipartisan Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 in the Senate where nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, falling under Title IV of the farm bill are the subject of contentious debate.

The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014 expires on Sept. 30, 2018, so the Conference Committee made up of nine Senate conferees, and 47 House members will have to come to a compromise in a final version.

The Conference Committee meets right after Labor Day to work out the final version of the bill. The compromise bill must then pass each chamber again before being sent off to President Donald Trump to sign. 

The Agricultural Act of 2014’s nutrition title accounts for 80 percent of the law’s forecasted spending, notes the CRS Report “Domestic Food Assistance: Summary of Programs .” The SNAP program is the largest portion of spending in the farm bill each year, with 42.1 million Americans receiving an average of $125 a month in nutritional assistance through SNAP.  A little over 728 thousand people in Missouri receive support through SNAP.

In Phelps County many individuals are dependent on SNAP -- 19.6 percent of residents live in poverty, and 13.4 percent of the county depends on SNAP monthly -- even though 25.8 percent of the population of Phelps County is eligible to participate in the federal nutrition program, according to the Missouri Hunger Atlas.

The House version of the legislation passed narrowly without Democratic support and imposes strict new work requirements on non-disabled adults seeking food stamps. The Senate version, which needed Democratic votes to pass, does not include significant changes to food stamps.

What Could Unfold for SNAP

The Congressional Budget’s Office (CBO) estimate of the House Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 reaffirms that its SNAP benefit cuts would total more than $17 billion over ten years -- “$23 billion in cuts minus $6 billion in modest benefit improvements,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Under the House food stamp plan, most adults would have to spend 20 hours per week either working or participating in a state-run training program to receive benefits under SNAP, which provides an average payment of $125 per month to 42.3 million Americans.

The Senate farm bill avoids cuts to SNAP program funding, keeping the program accessible to the millions of poor, elderly and disabled Americans who need it, and does not include any of the work requirements established in the House bill, according to Jeanette Mott Oxford, Executive Director of Empower Missouri, founded in 1901 as the Missouri Conference on Charities and Corrections.

“Two-thirds of senators voted to defeat an amendment during the Senate floor debate that would have taken away food assistance from SNAP participants through expanded work requirements like those in the House farm bill,” said Oxford.

The House bill states that non-senior and non-disabled adult beneficiaries aged 18 to 59, who don’t have children under 6 years old, are to work or be a part of a work program for at least 20 hours a week with compliance assessed every month.  Those who are non-compliant for more than one month would lose their SNAP benefits for 12 months followed by 36 months after each additional infraction.

The Senate bill seeks to maintain the work requirements already in place for SNAP benefits, which doesn’t impose additional work requirements on SNAP recipients. Non-senior and non-disabled adult beneficiaries aged 18 to 49, who aren’t raising minor children, are required to register for work and accept a job if offered with compliance assessed every six months. Adults working consistently less than 20 hours per week will receive benefits only for three out of every 36 months, and individuals who don’t comply for more than three months can lose benefits for one to three months as a sanction, yet be re-enrolled immediately upon work compliance.

"In fact, the Senate bill strengthens SNAP by testing new tools to help the program run more smoothly, supporting states that want to try innovative solutions to help SNAP participants get and keep a job, and enhancing a state’s ability to check if applicants are enrolled in more than one state,” said Oxford.

However, encouraging people to stay dependent on the government when “government welfare enrollment is at a record high for able-bodied adults in America, despite near-record low unemployment in most places,” is why work requirements laid out in the House version should be applied, according to Congressman for Missouri’s 8th District, Rep. Jason Smith (R., Mo.).

Congressman Smith said,“One of my very first actions in Congress was pushing for work requirements to be included as a part of the SNAP benefits we give to Americans, not because its uncompassionate, but rather the opposite, there is dignity in a day’s work, and we must make sure that government programs don’t punish needy families who are trying to climb the economic ladder.

“The House passed a strong Farm Bill in June, and we’ve been eagerly waiting for the Senate to act for weeks. I’m glad they finally agreed to go to Conference so we can hash out the differences and reauthorize these critical programs for farmers before they expire, provide food security, and strengthen Missouri’s economy."

The first Farm Bill Conference public meeting takes place Wednesday, Sept. 5 and is expected to consist mostly of opening statements from the Farm Bill conferees in the process that has a fast-approaching deadline.

If Congress fails to pass a bill this month, and they proceed to fail to pass an extension keeping funding to vital programs in place, what’s in store will include programs -- without a continuing baseline beyond the end of the current farm bill -- not having assured future funding.

The 2014 farm bill contains 39 programs across 10 of the 12 titles of the bill that received mandatory funding that does not have a budgeted baseline beyond FY2018, according to Congressional Research Service report, “Farm Bill Programs Without a Budget Baseline Beyond FY2018.” These include various programs that fall under nutrition Title IV of the farm bill.