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GOP House lawmakers unveil SNAP block grant plan

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House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, in June, joined House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican lawmakers to unveil the party’s new policy plan, “A Better Way,” aimed at helping lift people out of poverty and onto the ladder of opportunity.

The rollout was announced at House of Help City of Hope, a poverty-fighting organization in Washington, D.C., focused on cultural, spiritual, and social education and development.

Ryan praised its founder, Bishop Shirley Holloway, for working with addicted individuals and helping lift them out of poverty. Ryan contrasted that approach with treating the symptoms of poverty through welfare programs.

“They are not isolating the poor, they are elevating the poor,” Ryan said of Holloway’s organization.

“We can address hunger, we can address homelessness, but until we address the core issues people are facing, it’s just an endless cycle,” Conaway said. “What we have seen in our review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is community partners are critical to successful upward mobility by working directly with a person to address their specific needs.

“Our challenge is to craft policy that allows the work that people like Bishop Shirley do to flourish with the public resources available,” said Conaway.

The Republican plan deplores “an increasing number” of food-stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents, now generally limited to 90 days of benefits in a three-year period.

“Insist on work for work-capable adults,” it said. “Part of our effort to reform the welfare system includes identifying policies that prevent or discourage working age people from obtaining or preparing for work.”

Critics say a work requirement would be harmful during periods of high unemployment or slow job growth, such as the slow recovery from the 2008-09 recession.

On school nutrition, it said, “Republican reforms incorporate ideas like seeking out better ways to run these programs, consolidating and streamlining where possible, and providing greater authority to states to meet the unique needs in each of their communities.”

Other parts of the plan include:

• Tailor benefits to people’s needs. “Instead of the same failed one-size-fits-all approach, we will match poverty-fighting programs with your needs so that it’s easier to keep a job and start a family.”

• Improve skills and schools. “To help protect the next generation from poverty, we will make sure that poor kids have more opportunities to succeed at every stage, from childhood through college.”

• Plan and save for the future. “To help you stay on the path from dependence to independence, we will make it easier for you and your family to plan for the future and be retirement-ready.”

• Demand results. “We will open up the system to accountability and collaboration with local communities, backing ideas that work on the front lines every day.”

These ideas were developed by the Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity and Upward Mobility, which includes Conaway; Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-GA; Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-MN; Financial Services Committee Chairman, Jeb Hensarling, R-TX; and Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-TX.

Opposition to the Republican plan came from several sources, including House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN, who said “Political documents in a political year are not the answer to improving nutrition programs. This proposal is strikingly similar to amendments that nearly derailed the 2014 farm bill. I believe that if the House chooses to go down this path we will never be able to pass another farm bill.

“I have been supportive of the Agriculture Committee’s 14 hearings to learn more about SNAP and look at ways for the program to be improved. But this proposal’s focus on political ideology ignores the larger picture and areas where we can find some agreement. The Agriculture Committee has a tradition of working together and I hope we can continue that moving forward.”

In a statement, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “It would weaken federal school meal nutrition standards, reduce access to free school meals for low-income students in many areas while raising school administrative burdens and costs and begin moving school meal programs toward a block grant.”

Some of the proposals, such as scaling back the Obama administration’s stricter nutrition rules for school meals, are already in motion. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation along party lines recently that would award school-nutrition block grants to three states that would decide which students are eligible and how many meals to serve.

The bill also tightens use of “community eligibility,” to provide free meals to all students in a poor neighborhood, and devotes the savings to a higher reimbursement rate for school breakfast.

Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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