As rural Americans struggled in 2018, Midland Congressman Mike Conaway was laser-focused on making it harder for the working poor to eat.
The $867 billion Farm Bill passed by Congress this week did not include stricter work requirements that would have pummeled food stamp recipients, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by Texas’ Republican delegation.
The effort, spearheaded by Midland Congressman Mike Conaway, would have taken a hard line on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries, forcing poor people up to age 59 and parents of young children to lose food assistance for two calendar years if they lost their job or didn’t meet new work training requirements.
To hear Conaway, the outgoing chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee tell it, the proposed rules would’ve helped America’s working poor by “offering SNAP beneficiaries a springboard out of poverty to a good-paying job, and opportunity for a better way of life for themselves and their families.” So strong were Conaway’s convictions that SNAP recipients are “trapped in dependency” that he refused to agree to a Farm Bill without new work requirements for most of 2018, letting the 2014 bill expire and causing commodity, conservation and rural development programs to lose baseline funding and budget authority.
Congressman Jodey Arrington, a Lubbock Republican who also sits on the ag committee, said he was called by a higher power to take food out of the mouths of laid-off folks. “God … expects personal responsibility and he expects us to have responsible policies that pull us up and out of a cycle of dependency,” Arrington said in an impassioned speech on the House floor in April. Both Texans in the Senate, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, floated similar work requirements in the upper chamber but the proposals were non-starters.
The work requirements were deeply unpopular with Democrats and some moderate Republicans, who said the proposal stood to push struggling Americans further into poverty. An estimated 5 to 7 million people nationwide would have been affected, and as many as 1 million people could have been forced off the program in the next decade, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
The 800-page Farm Bill, which provides funding for dam repairs, low-interest loans for rural housing projects and funding for agriculture research at land-grant universities every five years, is a lifeline for rural America. Approximately 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes to food stamps, a program Texans rely on more heavily in rural areas, which tend to be older and poorer, than in big cities.
Conaway’s hardline stance against SNAP recipients was especially counterintuitive considering it would have harmed the working poor in his own district and came at a time when agricultural producers were being rocked by historically low farm income, natural disasters and commodity market uncertainty wrought by Trump’s trade wars. At the same time he was opposing food for the hungry, Conaway wanted to plow billions into crop subsidy payments that overwhelmingly benefit a small number of well-off producers who grow a handful of commodity crops. Texas farmers received $1.59 billion in subsidies in 2016, more than any other state, but 81 percent of producers here collected no subsidies at all.
This month, Conaway and other House Republicans had to face political reality. Their version of the bill barely scraped by a floor vote in June (not a single Democrat voted for it) and it received little consideration in the more moderate Senate. When Democrats took the House in the midterm elections, the writing on the wall was clear: For all of Texas’ right-wing wrangling, stricter SNAP work requirements weren’t viable. On Tuesday, Congress passed a bill without the requirements 369-47, the most “yes” votes ever recorded for a Farm Bill since the first one in 1933.
In the days since, Republicans have tried to convince constituents that their year-long mission to make life harder for food stamp recipients wasn’t a total failure. House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that the Farm Bill “strengthens work requirements and boosts work supports so that more people are spurred towards opportunities,” but the tiny tweaks made to SNAP don’t even register as a money-saving measure, Politico reports. On Wednesday, Conaway claimed in a statement that he had “kept faith” with his commitment to make the Farm Bill “about standing up for America’s farm and ranch families who are going through some very hard times.” In reality, Conaway’s No. 1 priority all along has been food stamp reform, even as farmers and ranchers struggled to stay solvent.
Now — finally — the food fight is finished. Trump is expected to sign the Farm Bill next week. The working poor who rely on food stamps are safe from this threat, at least for the next five years, when the Farm Bill will come up for reauthorization.