A store in St. Louis, Missouri, indicates it accepts food stamp benefits. Credit: Paul Sableman via Flickr/Creative Commons

With public attention focused on the southern border, where children were being taken from their parents as the Trump administration tried to scare away immigrants, the U.S. House narrowly passed legislation that would take food away from American children.

Cloaked as an improvement to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, the changes would extend existing work requirements to additional SNAP recipients and require more frequent verifications of work or volunteer hours. Most recipients, however, are already working or are physically or mentally unable to. As a result, the House provisions, which are part of the farm bill, would eliminate or reduce food assistance for up to 2 million Americans.

In essence, these people would be unemployed and hungry. This is not an improvement.

A Senate version of the farm bill, which is scheduled to be voted on later this week, doesn’t currently contain such unneeded and harmful changes to the SNAP program. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have pledged to make sure they are not added as the bill is debated and amended.

Collins does not support imposing additional work requirements that could prevent recipients, such as caregivers, from receiving assistance. She has long supported investments in job and skills training. The 2014 farm bill had pilot projects that allowed states to improve workforce training. The results of these efforts aren’t known yet so can’t be used to improve the program.

For King, the problems with the additional work requirements and reporting in the House bill is twofold. First, the costs of additional bureaucracy to verify documentation will cost more than will be saved by taking benefits away from hungry people. Second, requiring monthly documentation of working or training hours will dissuade some qualified people from participating in the program.

In Maine, the largest group of SNAP recipients is households with children, next are households including people with disabilities and older Mainers over age 60, and working families. Ten thousand Maine SNAP recipients are veterans.

The average SNAP benefit is $1.40 per person per meal.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who voted for the House bill, has championed the new work requirements, saying similar measures worked in Maine. He is wrong.

When Gov. Paul LePage’s administration rolled back the federally funded assistance program, it caused thousands of Maine adults to lose SNAP benefits. Today about 177,000 Maine residents receive SNAP, down from 222,000 in September 2014, a drop of nearly 20 percent.

Meanwhile, food insecurity is a growing problem in Maine. About 16.4 percent of households in Maine are food insecure, greater than the U.S. rate of 13 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which measured average rates of food insecurity between 2014 and 2016. Maine went from ninth worst in the country to seventh worst.

A survey of food pantry clients by Good Shepherd Food Bank, which distributes food to a network of more than 400 pantries, and the social services organization Preble Street gives an indication of what happened to the people who lost their benefits. They didn’t become less hungry. Their financial situation didn’t improve. Instead, they turned to an emergency source of sustenance: food pantries.

The food stamp program already includes work requirements. Applying them to more people, and making all recipients fill out more paperwork, won’t improve the program. Instead, it will only waste taxpayer money and hurt families that are already struggling to stave off hungers.

Senators are wise to reject these proposed changes.

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