House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt limit plans include a politically explosive proposal to raise the age limit for adults who must be working in order to receive federal food aid.
The controversial plans — which go beyond simply restoring previous work requirements, as McCarthy pitched to voters in a speech on Monday — are still being finalized. It’s part of a broader effort by Republicans to rein in spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, that expanded significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it could result in millions of low-income adults losing their food assistance. Democrats are vehemently opposed to such measures, setting up a fraught negotiation with the Biden White House as fears over a possible U.S. default on its debt continue to rise.
Specifically, McCarthy is looking at raising the age limit for work requirements for so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” who receive SNAP benefits — from 49 to 55 years old — according to the two House Republican lawmakers and two GOP aides, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations. The move is a significant step beyond the “Clinton-era” work requirements House Republicans say they’re pushing to restore, and will trigger even wider backlash from Democrats.
McCarthy has made targeting these adults, who generally don’t have children in their household, central to his efforts to shrink welfare programs as he tries to balance competing demands from various wings of the GOP caucus. Republicans who represent swing districts President Joe Biden won in 2020 are wary of going too far in tightening restrictions, prompting an outcry from some voters. At the other end of the party spectrum, conservatives are pushing McCarthy to pursue much stricter limits on SNAP and other federal assistance programs.
Given Republicans’ slim majority, McCarthy can only afford to lose four GOP votes in the House, leaving him and his team with very little room for error.
The speaker and his allies have yet to share a final debt limit bill with fellow Republicans. A spokesperson for McCarthy’s team didn’t respond to a request for comment about the plan.
Several members stood up during the House GOP Conference meeting Tuesday and called for McCarthy to go even further on his proposals to expand work requirements, according to two people in the room who were granted anonymity to discuss internal caucus matters.
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s an appropriate conversation for this debt ceiling conversation at this point,” said Republican Rep. Mike Garcia (Calif.), who represents a district Biden won.
Garcia said he supports McCarthy’s effort to expand work requirements for food assistance for “able-bodied” people of working age who “can get a job.”
“Now, if once employed, you still fall into those demographics, whether it’s age or whatever it is, and you’re still needing assistance for food stamps, then I’m supportive of that as well,” Garcia said.
“The conversation has been not to impact those with dependents, and not certainly single moms,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), who represents a Biden district and is being targeted by Democrats in 2024. “I just want to see what they’re actually proposing.”
Democrats, however, warn McCarthy’s proposed spending cuts in the debt limit talks would slash other key food aid — including programs with strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. More than one million low-income moms, babies and young children would lose access to baby formula and food benefits, while another million largely home-bound seniors would lose access to food through the meals on wheels program, according to the Biden administration.
Senate Republicans have been generally skeptical of the House GOP effort to shrink food aid via the debt limit talks. And, as McCarthy and House GOP leaders try to push for a final vote before the end of the month, some key GOP members like moderate Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) are starting to suggest Republicans could drop the SNAP plans from the debt limit bill, and leave it for upcoming negotiations on the farm bill.
“I’ll let the speaker and the chairman wrestle with that,” Bacon said, referring to House Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.). Thompson agreed that he’d rather the fight over SNAP work requirements be left to the farm bill. “But I don’t have control over the debt ceiling,” he added.
Republican leaders are looking to reassure vulnerable members about the scope of their SNAP proposal. Senior Republicans have been telling members that work requirements for able-bodied adults without young children at home are popular in swing states, pointing to a non-binding ballot initiative in Wisconsin that advised the state legislature to require “able-bodied, childless adults” to “look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits.” The measure passed with 80 percent approval.
“This is popular with the American people,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a top McCarthy ally. “It’s smart policy that reduces debt and has a long term effect on our workforce and economy.”
Senate Democrats, however, firmly rejected talk of new SNAP restrictions on Tuesday, arguing what the House GOP describes as targeted measures will still hit millions of vulnerable people.
“Let’s be clear, this is a non-starter,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
Stabenow, a member of Democratic leadership and the chair of the Agriculture Committee that oversees SNAP, noted in a brief interview that there’s already “stringent” work requirements in place for the program, set to return in July after a pandemic pause, including the “able-bodied” group.
“Frankly, I don’t think they understand that,” said Stabenow. “And we’re certainly not gonna tie it to whether or not we default.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told House Agriculture members who oversee SNAP that the “able-bodied” group of low-income Americans without dependents receiving assistance is “mostly male and mostly homeless,” including homeless veterans. People who have just aged out of foster care are also in the group. This population of SNAP recipients tends to have lower education levels, as well.
Vilsack also highlighted recent research that shows tightening work requirements “didn’t impact the earnings or employment opportunities” for recipients. “So in other words, you can talk about restraining that, but it’s not going to do what you think it’s going to do,” Vilsack told lawmakers.
As a former governor of Iowa, he also argued the move would ultimately “hamstring” governors’ ability to respond to disasters and other crises — since current SNAP exemptions are designed to help provide food to the most vulnerable low-income Americans in areas with high unemployment. Republicans argue Democratic governors exploit that exemption.
Molinaro said Tuesday he also wants blue states, like New York, to “make sure those [SNAP] dollars get to the people who are most vulnerable.”
Asked whom he considers “the most vulnerable,” Molinaro replied: “That’s a great question.”
“Let me see what they’re proposing and then I’ll take a look at it.”