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The impact that Kevin McCarthy's debt ceiling proposal would have on food stamps

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is aiming to hold a vote as early as this week on a proposal that would lift the nation's credit limit for one year. In exchange, he is asking for spending cuts and Republican policy changes to federal assistance programs like food stamps. But the path to this proposal actually becoming law is really steep. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is here to explain. Hi, Ximena.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So who exactly would be affected by these changes that Speaker McCarthy's proposing to food stamps?

BUSTILLO: Well, to start, 41 million people receive food stamps. And if these changes were to be enacted, older people who now qualify for food stamps would be affected. So this first provision that we're talking about is the - in the McCarthy bill that was unveiled last week would raise the age limit on those subject to work requirement tracking. Currently, adults ages 18 to the day they turn 50 who do not have children and are considered, quote, "capable" have to show that they're working 20 hours a week in order to get food stamps. If they stop work or don't work enough hours for three consecutive months, then they lose the benefit. McCarthy effectively wants to raise that age limit to 55, increasing the number of people subject to the work requirement.

The second provision that is related deals with food stamp changes and the degree to which states can use discretionary exemptions to protect people from this time limit. Now, we should note that McCarthy is still trying to get members of his own conference to support his bill, and he could make changes to any of the policy before it comes to the floor for a vote. And President Biden has also threatened to veto the bill.

CHANG: And I understand that it's not only Democrats who are concerned but also nutrition advocates, right? Like, tell us more about that.

BUSTILLO: Yeah. Nutrition advocates, Democrats, including the president himself, largely oppose this proposal because they're arguing that it would take people off of the program without doing anything to increase their chances of getting a job. Here's Ellen Vollinger of - the SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center.

ELLEN VOLLINGER: It's a strategy that is only certain to take food away from people. It is not going to improve their employability or their prospects in the labor market.

BUSTILLO: Vollinger argues that often the food benefit is being given because a person is not able to make enough money on their own to sustain themselves. And especially for those ages 50 to 55, a three-month time limit to find a job can be stringent.

VOLLINGER: One would expect also that as you're looking in your 50s, that there are greater labor market barriers. It's not uncommon to hear about - whether it's age discrimination or people who have had a career doing certain things, all of a sudden when that career ends, and having to shift to something else and come up with a different skill set - so the job search can take longer for people.

BUSTILLO: And this is not a new debate, right? Republicans have long wanted to limit the amount of people who are on what they consider welfare programs. In fact, Republican lawmakers were already eyeing making changes to work requirements in the 2023 Farm Bill negotiations that are currently also being discussed.

CHANG: Right. OK. So this Farm Bill that will be taken up soon by Congress for a vote, a majority of the funding in there does go to food stamps, right? So what are Republicans saying about that as those negotiations are also ramping up?

BUSTILLO: Right. The Farm Bill is up for renewal this year. And it's this once-every-five-years bill that does govern the rules of food stamps - so who qualifies, who doesn't, who's in, who's out - and some Republicans have already come out in favor of more strict work requirements. Senate agriculture ranking member John Boozman of Arkansas says he wants to see work requirements handled in the debt limit, however, instead of the Farm Bill.

JOHN BOOZMAN: So that is a, you know, integral part of their debt limit discussion. So I think the reality is, is that that will be worked out or fought during that process.

BUSTILLO: But he does support McCarthy's idea of raising the age limit. Now, we have to keep in mind that the specific bill is unlikely to pass, but the idea could find a home in other legislation.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thank you, Ximena.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA SONG, "LETTER TO UR EX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.