Newly Signed Debt Deal Imposes New Work Requirements for Food Aid and That Frustrates Many Democrats

Democrats are deeply divided about the new food aid requirements President Joe Biden negotiated as part of the debt ceiling deal and fear damage has already been done to safety net programs that will be difficult to unravel in the upcoming years as the GOP demands further cuts. 

Bargaining over strengthening work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly known as food stamps, was one of the focal points for Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and the White House up until the end. Negotiators from both sides made clear, both in private and in public, that it was the most significant area of disagreement and almost led to a breakdown of talks several times.

By the end, Republicans agreed to drop some work requirements for homeless people, veterans, and others. At the same time, Democrats warily accepted new requirements for some non-disabled recipients in exchange for food aid. 

The result of the tense back-and-forth wrangling was a deal that played to both sides, but one that both sides debated whether to approve of before it headed to the president to sign. 

“In order for this country to not default on its bills, we then turned and made our most vulnerable communities default,” said Democrat Representative Cori Bush of Missouri. Years before she was elected to Congress, Bush lived in a car with her then-husband and two young children after the family had been evicted from their rental home. 

The federal aid program provides monthly funds, sometimes as little as $6 per day, to allow low-income families and individuals to buy groceries. It is the most significant program in the country focused on fighting hunger, with 41 million people using benefits last year to purchase food, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program.

New requirements will apply to non-disabled adults from age 49 to 54 without dependents — and an increase of five years — by 2025. Those individuals will be required to attend training programs or work at least 80 hours a month to receive more than three months of SNAP benefits within three years.

GOP has attempted to expand work requirements for decades

Republicans have attempted for decades to expand work requirements for government assistance programs, maintaining that they result in more people returning to the workforce. 

“We’re going to return these programs to being a life vest, not a lifestyle. A hand up, not a handout, and that has always been the American way,” said Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, vice chairman of the House Republican conference. 

The trade-off of seemingly helping some groups while possibly harming other groups left the left flank of the Democratic Party — lawmakers who supported Biden by passing his agenda during the first two years of his term — frustrated by the outcome. 

Some advocates, including the nonpartisan National Alliance to End Homelessness, warned of a disturbing trend spreading across the country of increasing numbers of older adults becoming homeless, some for the first time.

“What we should not be playing is oppression Olympics,” said Bush. “Like which one gets to hurt today? Which one gets to that finish line to hurt today? That’s not where we should be as a society.”

Bush, who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voted “no” on the debt limit deal Wednesday night after spending days hearing from constituents and advocacy groups on the issue. 

“I think it’s important that (Biden) understands that it’s good for us to have a strong, no vote because this isn’t a deal that he would have made if we hadn’t been held hostage,” said Democrat Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Progressive Caucus.