RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Lawmakers are expected to take up the massive farm bill soon, but there's a big hurdle to getting it passed. And it has to do with the biggest expenditure in the bill, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The fight is over the expanded work requirements that House Republicans want to put in place for anyone getting food assistance. Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska reports.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: For the past two decades, adults up to 49 years old with no dependents have been required to work at least 20 hours a week to get assistance. House Republicans want to tweak that, adding parents with school-aged kids and adults up to age 59. That could affect up to 7 million people who would be required to work. Texas Congressman Mike Conaway is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the program. And he argues it'll push more people toward self-sufficiency.
MIKE CONAWAY: That's the result we want to have across the board is people bettering themselves, getting what they need and plug into the economy - get on that economic ladder of success and start moving up on their own.
GERLOCK: House Democrats are holding back support, saying that the expanded rules would only punish people who struggle finding work. Ed Bolen is a policy analyst for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (ph), and he's sympathetic to that argument. He says, in most SNAP households with children, there is someone who works but maybe not as much as would be required.
ED BOLEN: They're engaged in the labor market, or they have very serious barriers to it, whether it's a criminal conviction, lack of a car, physical or mental condition that makes it hard to work.
GERLOCK: But both sides agree that the states should have to step up their employment programs to better prepare SNAP recipients like Erica Galvan for jobs. Galvan lives in Columbus, Neb., and joined a state-run pilot program similar to what lawmakers have in mind. At the time, the single mother was working the night shift at a nursing home, and it was taking a toll. She was only sleeping a few hours a day, and one of her sons was struggling at school.
ERICA GALVAN: Crazy stability (laughter) is better than no stability, I guess is the way I looked at it. Like, it's bringing in money.
GERLOCK: She started meeting with a caseworker to update her resume, look for jobs and practice interview skills. It helped her get a new job with regular hours at a local pharmacy that pays a thousand dollars a month more than the nursing home. And she's set to go off of SNAP for the first time in two years.
GALVAN: I have a job that I can stay at for years and years. It fulfills me. It makes me happy. And it's a good place for my kids.
GERLOCK: Galvan says the one-on-one case management made a difference for her. And it's something the House farm bill calls for. But that kind of training is expensive. The bill would spend a billion dollars a year just on employment programs. Congressman Conaway says that triples current spending.
CONAWAY: We're going to give them that helping hand up. Now, is it all of the helping hand they need? Probably not. But it's going to be a really good one.
GERLOCK: But opponents of stricter work requirements say behind that helping hand is a stiff penalty. If a person averages fewer than 20 hours a week of work or training, they could be kicked out of SNAP for a year. Ed Bolen says that a few sick days or a broken down car is all it would take for some people to fall short.
BOLEN: Cutting them off of SNAP doesn't get somebody a house if they're homeless. It doesn't get them health care if they have an undiagnosed mental condition. It just takes away their food assistance.
GERLOCK: Even if stricter work rules passed the House, Senate lawmakers are expected to push back, setting up a potential clash in Congress on whether more people getting assistance should have to work for their food.
For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.
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MARTIN: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agricultural and rural issues.
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