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Supporters fear Farm Bill cuts could hurt the working poor

September 30, 2018

Pam Gerwe, a Whitefish-area farmer, believes the poor provide a ready and especially vulnerable target.

“It’s an easy group of people to pick on,” she said, speaking as she waited on customers at a recent Whitefish Downtown Farmers Market.

Gerwe, co-owner of Purple Frog Gardens, and others in the Flathead Valley work to make fruits and vegetables and other healthy fare more accessible and affordable for people who depend on SNAP benefits to buy a portion of their food.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, was once known as the federal food-stamp program. That changed 10 years ago.

This year, in late June, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan Farm Bill. It did not include any cuts to SNAP benefits.

A week before, the U.S. House had narrowly passed a partisan Farm Bill. It received nary a vote from a Democrat. Among a host of other provisions, the bill outlined controversial changes to SNAP, including amping up work requirements for some recipients.

Those changes elicited strong reactions.

Some Montanans expressed fears about the potential effects of the House bill on the state’s poor, including the working poor. Others supported the proposed measures.

The current Farm Bill expires today, Sept. 30. Efforts are underway in Congress to resolves differences between the Senate and House bills.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, voted for the House version of the Farm Bill.

Travis Hall, a spokesman for Gianforte, talked about the Congressman’s vote and the bill’s impacts to SNAP benefits.

“With the economy booming and more jobs available than people looking for work, Greg supports bringing able-bodied adults, who are under 60 and without small children, off the sidelines and back into the workforce with good-paying jobs,” Hall said.

Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network, responded.

“Helping people who can work get good-paying jobs and succeed is an important goal- but the House Farm Bill won’t do that,” Burhop said. “Instead, it will take away food assistance from struggling Montanans, including many who already work.”

She said many jobs in Montana pay low wages, have unpredictable schedules and no benefits.

“SNAP provides nutrition and stability when wages fall short, helping to keep people connected to the workforce and get through hard times,” Burhop said.

An analysis funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research found that nearly 2 million households now participating nationwide in SNAP would no longer be eligible for benefits if the House bill changes prevail.

Mathematica’s analysis also found that 34 percent of the households affected would include seniors, 23 percent would include children and 11 percent would include a person with a disability.

As FOR Montana, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which describes itself as a nonpartisan research and policy institute focused on reducing poverty and inequality, reports that SNAP “helps more than 121,000 Montanans afford food for themselves and their families.” The center said SNAP participants in Montana include about 10,300 seniors.

In turn, Hall cited research by the Foundation for Government Accountability, which says its focus is “to free individuals from the trap of government dependence and to let them experience the power of work.”

The foundation’s research suggests there are about 47,400 able-bodied adults in Montana receiving SNAP benefits and that about 65 percent of those adults are not working.

The foundation estimates the new work requirements would affect about 25,800 Montanans.

The House bill’s mandatory work requirements would require SNAP participants ages 18 through 59 who are not disabled or raising a child under 6 years old to prove, every month, that they are working at least 20 hours a week or participating for at least 20 hours a week in a work training program or a combination of the two.

Failure to comply could cost recipients prolonged access to SNAP benefits.

President Trump observed that SNAP work requirements “will bolster farmers and get America back to work.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the new requirements could force states to add bureaucracy to track SNAP recipients and could impact people with barriers to employment, including limited skills or mental illness.

The center said many SNAP recipients already work.

Gerwe offered a similar observation.

“A lot of the SNAP recipients are working poor,” she said. “We’ve got a system where people are underemployed and even two incomes are barely enough.

“If people are hungry, we want them fed,” Gerwe added. “The solution isn’t to cut SNAP benefits.”

Hall said Gianforte hopes that House and Center conference committee members “will iron out their differences soon and get a Farm Bill together so our farmers and ranchers have greater certainty.”

He said Gianforte would not speculate about whether he would support a final Farm Bill that might omit changes to SNAP benefits.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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