US food aid could decline due to debt ceiling deal, hunger groups warn

By Lea Douglas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Changes to the largest U.S. food aid program under the debt deal passed by Congress this week could force hundreds of thousands of older Americans off food aid federal government and bury other candidates in new documents, food safety experts have warned.

Eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) became a lightning rod in the debt settlement negotiations. Food banks across the country are struggling to keep up with growing demand as lower-income Americans face higher grocery costs as COVID-era benefits have expired.

The debt plan passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday and by the Senate on Thursday contains work requirements to obtain food benefits. The measure would exempt veterans, homeless people and aging young adults out of foster care, provided they can prove their status.

It would also extend those work requirements to adults aged 50 to 54, a group that was previously exempt. This change would affect nearly 750,000 people, according to the center-left Budget and Policy Priorities.

The White House, which approved the deal as a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, said SNAP enrollment would be about the same once the changes are fully implemented.

Republicans argued during negotiations that expanding work requirements would help more SNAP recipients get jobs and reduce their reliance on federal aid.

Some progressive lawmakers have cited the work requirement issue as a reason for not supporting the debt deal. Hunger relief advocates say new barriers facing older Americans will result in the loss of many benefits, while newly exempted groups may struggle to navigate a complex bureaucracy to prove their status.

People aged 50 to 54, for example, could have health issues that limit their ability to meet the new requirement to work 20 hours a week, said Ty Jones Cox, vice president of food aid at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Veterans and homeless people may have difficulty collecting the proper documentation to prove their exemptions through the complex, state-by-state process of obtaining SNAP benefits, said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for Food Research. & Action Center.

“It will be a very heavy lift for social workers,” she said. “It’s going to be very confusing.”

THE LABOR DEBATE

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who led Republican negotiations on the debt deal, said expanding work requirements will push more adults into work and thus strengthen the economy. Anti-hunger groups say the research does not support this conclusion.

In a 2022 report, the Congressional Budget Office found that SNAP work requirements reduced recipients’ overall income because the amount of work required made them ineligible for SNAP based on income.

Kofi Kenyatta, director of policy and practice at UpTogether, a nonprofit that aims to reform anti-poverty programs, called the work requirements “arbitrary and downright cruel”.

Currently, SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 with no dependents or disabilities must work 20 hours a week to receive benefits for more than three months over a three-year period. The changes would raise that upper age limit to 54.

Colleen Young, director of government affairs at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, predicts demand will increase for her organization’s services and food pantry as the debt reduction plan is implemented.

The food bank is already over budget as it distributes the second highest number of free food pounds in its history, a common story among emergency food providers as inflation hammers household budgets.

“It’s going to be a tension,” Young said.

(Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Hogue)

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