I grew up on a small dairy farm in western Maine, the youngest of eight kids. While getting by was never easy, some months were harder than others. For a short time, we even relied on what’s now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Like most people, we didn’t really want benefits. In fact, we would go out of town to shop because we didn’t want anyone to know.
Eventually, my mom started a small printing business that, in addition to farm income, ultimately got us back on our feet. Thanks to the social safety net, our family never went without meals. But we needed assistance to turn the corner.
Now there’s a big battle brewing in Congress over a similar program, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which is funded through a massive, critical piece of legislation labeled the “farm bill.”
The farm bill will affect how Americans grow, eat and buy food for the next five years. It will also affect how businesses all over the country grow and succeed.
We’re talking about rural development loans to help farmers expand their operations. We’re talking about feeding the hungry through programs like SNAP. Everybody from farmers markets to Maine dairies and potato growers are affected by this bill.
Even the funding for conservation reserve programs, so critical for the whitetail deer population, comes from the farm bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is really a major rural economic development agency, and the farm bill is its marching orders.
But the farm bill has turned into another partisan battle.
The major area of disagreement is the proposed work requirement for able-bodied adults to be eligible for SNAP benefits. This work requirement was put in place in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, but states have received waivers over and over again, and today, few actually require it. The farm bill as drafted would make those requirements universal and mandatory. Without meeting the requirements, food stamp benefits would end after three months.
This work requirement has caused partisans on one side to threaten to block the farm bill, while partisans on the other side seek to ram it through on a party-line vote.
This is not how good policy is made. This bill is far too critical to be caught in the gears of partisanship.
I believe work requirements make sense as a way to protect SNAP from potential abuse. That way if people need the program, like I did, it will be there. And getting people back to work, or at least volunteering in their community, gives participants the opportunity to gain skills that will help them in their careers over the long run.
However, I don’t believe work requirements alone are the answer. First, strict work requirements would mean the creation of an elaborate enforcement bureaucracy that would likely cost taxpayers more than it would save. Second, most people who are on public assistance are not there by choice. It’s short-sighted to believe people will simply re-enter the workforce because their benefits are cut off.
We need a more creative approach. The work, not the punishment, needs to be the focus.
In an employment market where the biggest complaint is lack of available labor, we should be focused on fixing the link between those looking for work and those looking for workers. The proposed farm bill includes a massive increase in funding for job training, and that’s a great start. It can help a person start a new career, not just a new job. We need to find more ways for government to assist job seekers, and invest more in programs that will actually solve the problem of government dependency.
Instead of looking at government as the enforcer, we need to look at government as the facilitator.
We shouldn’t be creating a no-questions-asked benefit system, and neither should we be creating a draconian work requirement system. Benefit recipients want to work, and taxpayers want them to have jobs. Government’s role is to help make that happen, so we all benefit.
On top of that, the farm bill contains a whole host of important items critical to our state and nation. Strict opposition is not an option. Just saying no is not a policy. Let’s get creative around the major area of disagreement and find a better way on which we can all agree.
Growing up on a farm, there’s no time to point fingers. You learn early that the first priority is getting the job done, and that means working together.
With so much at stake in this farm bill, this is a lesson Congress needs to learn.
Marty Grohman represents Maine House District 39 and is an independent candidate for Maine’s 1st Congressional District.
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