Congress is considering provisions in the latest farm bill that would roll back eligibility and impose strict work requirements for people receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
About 3.8 million Texans rely on SNAP, the largest program for feeding low-income Americans.
Daniel and Olga Robles say they are nervous about the proposed changes. The Austin couple is in a situation that a lot of older Americans find themselves in: They're on a fixed income and neither is working. Daniel, who is 65, is retired. Olga, who is 57, has a disability that keeps her from working.
Daniel Robles says money is tight.
“It’s enough to pay some of the bills and the mortgage, but midway in the month we don’t have anything,” he says. “We don’t have any money.”
Robles says he and his wife rely on a patchwork of help – including SNAP – to pay for food every month.
“You know it’s very unfortunate that we only receive $90 a ... month, which is not enough,” he says. “But you know helping us is some of the food pantries."
Olga Robles says she’s grateful to have food pantries to rely on. In fact, she and her husband both frequently volunteer at El Buen Samaritano, a pantry in South Austin. But, she says, SNAP gives her flexibility to get the things she’s not getting at the food pantry.
“In the food pantry they give you just the basics: beans, spaghetti, peanut butter,” she says. “And it’s good for us. It’s a very good blessing, but sometimes we have to ... balance.”
But that balance could be thrown off by the proposed changes to SNAP.
Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Policy Priorities, says the bill the House is debating adds work requirements to older people on SNAP.
“The new bill would mean that we push the work requirements up from 49 to 59” years old, she says. “So, that’s a new group of older workers who would have to maintain their 20 hours at minimum a week.”
Cooper says people in this age group often have the hardest time finding work. If they don’t find a job, their only other option under the proposed legislation is to get job training.
If the bill passes, Cooper says, creating the infrastructure for massive job training in each state will take way longer than the two years before the provision goes into effect. More than a million adults “would lose SNAP every month just based on the work requirements,” she says.
“Not because they're not working, but because they can’t do the system,” Cooper says. “They can’t jump through the hoops.”
The bill, she says, would amount to a big shift in how SNAP money is spent. She says a lot of money that has been spent on feeding people could be shifted to oversight of these new rules.
Cooper says she’s also worried about a provision in the bill that would roll back eligibility from 165 percent of the federal poverty line to 130 percent. That would force about 125,000 Texans out of the program, she says.
Advocates say these changes could force families to rely even more on food pantries, which are already struggling to help people, particularly in rural areas.
Daniel Robles says losing SNAP would be a big hit to his family, and he thinks that will be true for many others, too.
“You cut that and you'll be hurting a lot of people,” he says. “A lot of people.”