Catherine Rampell: Congress takes food from 2 million poor people — and doesn’t even save money

A new, monthly evaluation for millions of people would be a huge administrative undertaking.

(AP Photo/J. David Ake, File) In Dec. 14, 2016 file photo, early morning traffic rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol as daybreaks in Washington.

Leave it to Congress to take food away from 2 million poor people and somehow save no money in the process.

The House farm bill failed on Friday after Freedom Caucus members withheld their votes in the hope of getting immigration legislation to the floor. But assuming this farm bill gets revived, it would completely revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps). In many ways, the legislation — which, in a break with tradition, was written entirely by Republicans — contains objectives shared by people on both sides of the aisle. These include helping low-income people find more stable work and encouraging noncustodial parents to contribute financially to their kids’ upbringing.

However noble such goals are, though, the actual consequence of the bill would be a gigantic, expensive new government bureaucracy — one that eats up nearly all the “savings” from kicking people off food stamps, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The most controversial part of the bill, and the part that President Trump has reportedly made a condition of his signature, involves work requirements.

To be clear, the food-stamp system already has work requirements. Under current law, working-age SNAP beneficiaries, with some modest exceptions, must work or participate in training programs. Those who don’t can lose some or all of their benefits. For example, able-bodied adults under the age of 49, without dependents, can get food stamps for just three months of every three years, unless they prove they’re working at least 20 hours a week. And states can impose stricter work requirements if they choose.

The bill House Republicans wrote would ratchet up these requirements, for every state. It would force every able-bodied person from ages 18 to 59, and without a preschool-aged child, to prove they are either working or in a qualified job-training program for at least 20 hours per week.

They would also have to submit documentation to prove and re-prove their eligibility every month. Miss a single month, and the penalty would be steep: They could be locked out of the system for an entire year.

Most able-bodied food-stamp recipients, it turns out, are already working. So you might wonder what the big deal is.

Well, aside from apparently abandoning Republicans’ supposed commitment to states’ rights, there are a few problems with this proposed “reform.”

One is that low-wage workers often have limited control over their work schedules. If a restaurant cuts a single mom’s hours one week because business is slow, or she has to miss a few days because her child care fell through, she could lose food assistance for an entire year.

Checking eligibility every month is also expensive.

Currently, most states verify work status every six months, or when a major change occurs in a household. A new, monthly evaluation for millions of people would be a huge administrative undertaking, requiring governments to invest in new computer systems and more staff.

Documenting work hours each month would be challenging and burdensome for lots of workers, too, particularly the self-employed. A lot of people who legally qualify for food stamps would still likely lose them.

But hey, better to let 10 deserving people go hungry than a single undeserving person be fed, right?

These changes would be less problematic if they looked as though they’d help more poor people get jobs. But that seems unlikely. The bill kicks some money — financed by benefit cuts — toward training, but not nearly enough. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it comes to about $30 per month per worker.

There are other problematic eligibility changes in the bill, as well.

For instance, parents living apart would have to participate in the child-support enforcement program or lose benefits. Which again, may sound like a good idea. Who doesn’t want more “deadbeat dads” to cough up?

But as with the work requirements, states already can impose these conditions, on both custodial and noncustodial parents. Only six states do so, because most have crunched the numbers and realized the administrative costs aren’t worth it.

The custodial parent who isn’t already receiving or pursuing child support often either knows the other parent has no money or doesn’t want to be in touch because of a history of domestic abuse. In other words: It’s the hard, and expensive, cases that remain.

The net consequence of these and other ill-thought-out provisions: Millions will see their food assistance cut or eliminated, or never even apply for it. Billions will be spent getting that outcome.

All of which is to say: Republicans aren’t really opposed to Big Government; they just want their Big Government to help fewer people.

Catherine Rampell