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Opening Day at the Albany Farmer's Market 5 (copy)

The 2018 Farm Bill is working its way through Congress, and that's never a smooth process in the best of years.

This year's Farm Bill may prove to be particularly contentious, as Republicans push for new work requirements in the food-stamp program, which is used by 42 million Americans. In Oregon, estimates are the program (known now as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) is used by more than 400,000 households with more than 700,000 people each month.

In Linn County about 21.9 percent of households use SNAP.

The draft version of the Farm Bill that recently passed the House Agriculture Committee would substantially strengthen the work requirements in SNAP. Able-bodied adults under the age of 60 without young children would have to prove that they are working or participating in a work-training program for 20 total hours each week to qualify for assistance. By 2026, the work requirement would increase to 25 hours a week, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

SNAP already has work requirements already in place: Under current program rules, childless adults under 50 are limited to three months of assistance in three years if they fail to work 20 hours a week.

An early version of the Republican plan budgets $1 billion per year to fund the required expansion of the training program.

The idea, proponents say, is not to have people go hungry. Rather, the idea is to give those adults the skills they need to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

That's not a bad idea. 

But, as always, the devil is in the details.

There's considerable doubt that the proposal floated by the House Republicans allocates enough money to fully fund the type of training program expansion that will be necessary. (The Washington Post noted that one organization, the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, estimated that it would cost $15 billion a year — not $1 billion a year — to properly fund a national employment and training program.)

And there's a real risk that work requirements that may be effective in urban areas won't work particularly well in the nation's rural areas — which already tend to be more dependent on SNAP benefits. It seems counterproductive to impose new SNAP requirements that have the potential to hammer our rural areas — places that have not fully shared in the benefits of economic recovery.

Already, the U.S. counties most at risk of food insecurity tend to be rural. (The food bank network Feeding America defines food insecurity as the likelihood of a household to be unable to afford or find healthy food options.)

To be fair, the version of the Farm Bill that emerged from the House Agriculture Committee has some features that could improve SNAP: For example, the draft would reauthorize and expand the Food Insecurity Nutrition Program, providing $275 million over the next few years for efforts to extend SNAP and other incentives to farmers markets; the idea here is to find ways to connect farmers directly with low-income families. The bill also funds a $1.2 billion program to reimburse retailers and grocers that provide discounts on fresh produce and milk. (A proposal from the Trump administration which would have cut SNAP benefits to many households and replaced them with a box of nonperishable goods mercifully does not appear to have made the cut.)

There's a good idea at the heart of the proposal to strengthen the work requirements for SNAP — to try to break what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the cycle of "long-term dependency."

"Everyone who receives SNAP deserves an opportunity to become self-sufficient and build a productive, independent life," he said.

No argument here.

But let's be sure that rural residents have the same shot at that goal as their their urban counterparts. Otherwise,  we run the risk of leaving our rural areas increasingly isolated — and increasingly hungry. (mm)

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