By Phil Kerpen
The biggest disappointment of the Kevin McCarthy speakership was on work requirements for welfare, because the Limit, Save, Grow Act – the opening House volley in the debt ceiling fight – was so strong on them but the final debt ceiling deal, by contrast, actually weakened work requirements. Speaker Mike Johnson will have a chance to revisit this defeat in the upcoming Farm Bill debate, because food stamps are by far the largest spending program in that bill, typically accounting for about 75 percent of the total price tag.
The right way to cut that spending is to eliminate the categorical exemption loopholes that were created in the debt ceiling bill to create strong incentives to move Americans into the workforce and up the ladder of economic opportunity so they will no longer need food stamps. It would be a mistake to get sidetracked into a debate instead over which products should or should not be covered by food stamps, joining a leftist crusade against junk food and soda.
Such proposals do nothing to reduce federal spending, break the cycle of dependency, or prioritize the value of work.
To the contrary, they suggest that enrollees are wards of a paternalistic state that should decide for them what they should eat and drink. Today, the target is junk food, but in the next Farm Bill, the politically-unfavored product would be red meat, dairy, or fish. Federal bureaucrats have an infamously bad record of deciding which foods are good and bad. The goal of food stamp reform should not be to modify the diets of enrollees – but to get them off welfare and into work.
The Limit, Save, Grow Act tightened work requirements for cash welfare and food stamps, while imposing new work requirements on Medicaid. House Republicans went into the debt ceiling negotiations with the position that non-disabled, working-age adults should be expected to work or participate in job training to qualify for federal welfare benefits. They had the strong wind of public opinion at their back, with several polls showing public support in excess of 75 percent, and an April ballot question in Wisconsin – the same day they were electing a Democratic state Supreme Court – passing with over 79 percent of the vote.
Even with the weight of public opinion behind them, Republican debt ceiling negotiators repeatedly retreated, removing the provisions imposing new work requirements for able-bodied working-age adults on Medicaid completely, then removing the provisions tightening work requirements for cash welfare, and finally adding categorical exemptions to the food stamp work requirements – they don’t apply to veterans, homeless individuals, and former foster children under age 25.
The Congressional Budget Office found that the new exemptions more than offset the reduction in state discretionary exemptions and the raising of the age that work requirements apply from 49 to 54, and thus the final debt ceiling bill actually increased the number of people on food stamps by 78,000 and raised federal spending by $2.1 billion. Somehow Republican negotiators who had set out to strengthen work requirements agreed to do the opposite.
The Farm Bill is an opportunity for the new speaker to score a huge victory for the American people: repeal the categorical exemptions so that strong work requirements will bring people on food stamps into the workforce and on the ladder of economic opportunity, easing the labor shortage holding back expansion in many sectors, and saving money for taxpayers. The myth behind the categorical exemptions is that food stamps with no work requirements are a gift to our non-disabled veterans – but the truth is the opposite: welfare without work requirements is a curse that traps people in a safety net that too easily becomes a hammock, sapping ambition and preventing upward mobility.
Speaker McCarthy was close to a historic victory on work requirements but ultimately suffered a total defeat. Speaker Johnson should avoid getting sidetracked by the junk food debate and make work requirements his top Farm Bill priority.