As Congress looks to complete work on the must-pass Farm Bill, a critical nutrition assistance program remains in the crosshairs. With many provisions of this legislation set to expire in 2024, it is critical that Congress avoid any new restrictions to food assistance programs that provide crucial support to low-income Americans. 

The Farm Bill is an omnibus, multi-year law that governs numerous food and agricultural programs. The bill covers commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, programs for livestock and poultry production, and support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The Farm Bill is typically renewed by Congress every five years and provides an opportunity for policymakers to address multiple agricultural and food issues simultaneously. Congress last renewed the Farm Bill in 2018 and many Farm Bill programs will expire unless Congress reauthorizes it this year. 

One of the major programs under the Farm Bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides nutrition assistance for low-income households. With a looming recession, high inflation, and a global pandemic, about 42 million people rely on SNAP benefits in the United States as of 2023. In terms of cost, SNAP is one of the largest federal social safety net programs. 

Congressional Republicans have long pushed for increased restrictions regarding SNAP funding, particularly by increasing work requirements for the program. Earlier this year, Republicans included increased work requirements for SNAP enrollees in the debt limit deal. However, research shows that existing work-first and work-reporting requirements for SNAP do not increase employment or earnings but rather cause many people to lose food assistance. Studies also show that work-first requirements cut SNAP participation by 53 percent for participating adults. Overall, work-first requirements only push people deeper into poverty and worsen hunger. 

SNAP’s existing work-first requirements are also rooted in racist and misogynistic underpinnings. Work-first requirements arrive from the notion that employment is the primary route to self sufficiency. In a system where employment is not equitable due to factors such as gender, race, and disability, hypothetical self-sufficiency in the face of systemic discrimination generational poverty is impossible. Work-first requirements do not improve employment or earnings but rather take away assistance from the most vulnerable populations who rely on programs like SNAP for sustenance.

Gender-based inequalities such as occupational segregation, unequal pay, insufficient family support for workers, and elevated exposure to physical abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace are all contributing factors to why women are the majority of recipients of social safety net programs like SNAP. Added stipulations of work-first requirements are incredibly harmful to SNAP recipients. Reports show that when benefits are taken away from people, their health and education are among the first factors to be impacted. Cuts in funding to SNAP would leave millions of vulnerable people without reliable income to provide food for themselves and their families. 

On October 25, 2023, Congressman Mike Johnson (LA-04) was elected Speaker of the House. Johnson is a staunch proponent of overhauling SNAP and has historically supported proposals to roll back food aid expansions and block states from exempting some work requirements for the program. There have been reported tensions among the GOP earlier this year after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that, ironically, adding work-first requirements to SNAP would increase federal spending on the program. Johnson’s ascension within the GOP leadership heightens the overall chances of major political clashes over the renewal of the farm bill. 

Drastic moves to cut SNAP could jeopardize the passage of the Farm Bill, resulting in the potential loss of billions in food aid and farm conservation programs, with farm states caught in the middle. State lawmakers of farm states have advocated for extensions of the current 2018 farm bill to cushion any stop-gap federal funding ahead of another anticipated government shutdown. House Agriculture Committee ranking member David Scott (D-GA) recently called on the committee to pass a temporary one-year extension of the Farm Bill. 

Congress must act to protect and support funding for the SNAP program during Farm Bill negotiations. Additionally, work-first requirements have proven to be extremely taxing to both federal and state governments and only prevent the people who rely on programs like SNAP from access to food. Congress must work to eliminate harmful work-first stipulations that stand in the way of people receiving benefits for basic needs.