Diversity and SNAP Decisions: How Women’s Voices Would Have Built a Better Farm Bill

I started working on economic policy to take a personal feminist stand after a few former male colleagues on Capitol Hill told me that they would handle the “hard” “guy” issues—like economics, taxes and the budget—and I would handle the “soft” “girl” issues, whatever they were. In response, I built the career they tried to push me out of—and immediately delved into tax and budget issues.

Too often, older, white males drive these conversations—from taxes to the budget to job creation—and unfortunately leave large swaths of people across the country out of their calculus. For years, I was one of the few, if only, woman in the room discussing economic policy.

Take it from someone who has been there: The lack of diversity among policymakers results in bad policies. If we want better laws, we need more women’s voices at the decision-making tables.

Timothy Krause / Creative Commons

Take, for example, the cohort who led the process in passing last year’s tax bill—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, former Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch. Their bill raised taxes on millions of women and families, all while giving new tax cuts to corporations and the ultra-wealthy.

A similar one-sided process is currently unfolding with the 2018 Farm Bill, which contains a proposal to cut spending from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps. Congressional lawmakers want to cut spending from SNAP under the guise of helping people find good jobs by tightening so-called “work requirements.” Currently, “able body adults without dependents” age 18 to 49 cannot receive nutrition assistance for more than three months in a three-year period if they do not work or participate in a work-training program for at least 20 hours a week. Republicans in Congress are proposing in part to increase the upper age limit from 49 to 59, make parents of children aged 6 and up meet these requirements, and increase the work hours from 20 to 25.

At its core, this proposal is fundamentally divorced from the reality and lived experiences of women’s lives. It’s not based upon any true understanding of what it is that women actually need to work. And that’s unsurprising, since a group of white, male House members introduced it.

Although women are graduating from college in higher percentages than men and reaching the C-suites of corporate America, the economic reality for many is bleak. 21.7 percent of unemployed women aged 20 to 64 years old have been unemployed for six months or more. The situation is particularly bad for older women—27.6 percent of unemployed women aged 45 to 54 years and 34.4 percent of unemployed women aged 55 to 64 years have been unemployed for six months or more, and women make up nearly two-thirds of those 65 and older who live in poverty. Republican policymakers’ plan to impose stricter work requirements on older individuals ignores the realities and challenges that older women face and would make more of them suffer from food insecurity or go hungry.

Women are also over-represented in low-wage jobs—as cashiers, maids and housekeepers and restaurant servers. Frequently, these are part-time jobs, regardless of whether workers may want or need full-time hours, that come with work schedules that are often unpredictable, unstable and inflexible. Adding caregiving to the mix can make work schedules in low-wage jobs next to impossible to manage. Increasing SNAP’s 20-hour- per-week work requirement does nothing to actually help women in these jobs get more hours or better jobs—it simply intensifies the economic pressure on women who are already struggling.

The reality of the SNAP program is that the majority of people who receive nutrition assistance and can work already are working. Taking away food from struggling people does not make more people work. It just makes more people hungry. If Republicans were truly interested in helping people find good jobs, they would invest in education, child care and infrastructure, and pass measures that ensure fair work schedules and provide paid family and medical leave.

Expanding the diversity of policymakers—making sure that women and women of color have a seat at the table, along with men who reflect a wide range of backgrounds and experiences—is a first step in reshaping policy. I’m sure that to that room of white men, increasing SNAP’s “work requirements” sounds like a good idea. Who doesn’t want to encourage work? But they probably haven’t been talking to the moms working as child-care providers or grocery store cashiers who are doing their best to make their hours and take care of their families, and who need SNAP, on top of their wages, to feed their kids.

House Republicans should go back to the drawing board on their SNAP proposal and reassess why so many of their proposals boost the lives of the most privileged while forgetting about the lives of those who are struggling to survive.

Anna Chu is Vice President for Strategy and Policy at the National Women’s Law Center and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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  1. Ms. Chu —

    Welcome to the food-and-farm policy world. And nice to know about the National Women’s Law Center. Thanks to Angie Carter (Prof. of Sociology and board member of Women, Food and Agriculture Network), for forwarding your piece on the Farm Bill — and the need for women’s voices.

    Your analysis of the latest Farm Bill proposal to cut SNAP benefits is pretty much spot on. However, your recommendation–that the House Republican white males go back to the drawing board—doesn’t address your analysis. After 13 years in the food-and-farm world, I can confirm that it hasn’t been for lack of trying that women’s voices haven’t been more included in the Farm Bill conversation. Elections will help down the road, but “representative democracy” is an inherent contradiction in our government and the food-and-farm movement is exposing that on a meal-by-meal basis.

    Here’s some immediate things that you, Ms. Magazine, the National Women’s Law Center, and/or The OpEd Project can do to help those of us who have been trying to make our voices heard in Farm Bill and other national economic policy conversations.
    A. Learn about the 20+ year-old U.S. food-and-farm movement, a still-growing movement of policy + project practitioners, of which 80% are women. Major areas of national learning (that will reward anyone’s time) are:
    — Terminology: Also known as food sovereignty, food democracy, food justice, farm justice, local foods
    — Intersectionality: farmer-consumer, rural-suburban-urban; humans-nonhumans; and every other demographic
    — Listservs: COMFOOD (Tufts), FPN (Johns Hopkins), NAFSN (Cornell), HEN (registered dietitians); regional, state, metro
    — Coalitions + coalitions within coalitions (National Family Farm Coalition; National Farm to School, Farmers Market Coalition, Alliance of Food Chain Workers, Organic Farmers Association, etc.)
    — Types of projects (most of which need new policy support): co-ops, farmer training, farmland preservation, urban agriculture, farm-to-school (cafeteria, curriculum, living skills), farmers markets, food-and-farm councils, shared kitchens, food chain labor organizing, nutrition, labeling, composting, non-food crops as part of the food system
    — Food system studies: Popping up in colleges and universities across the country
    — Food policy councils are the major contribution that the food-and-farm movement has made to democratic process: municipal, county, state; grassroots, non-profit, legislative authority

    B. Help us get unified, coordinated, and integrated into election cycles
    — Develop and promote platforms
    — Get “food-and-farm” on the mainstream list of issues
    — Identify best practices in communications (working with media, publicly archived listservs, Fact sheets, grant writing)
    C. Help us find funding, especially at the local project and national policy level
    D. Help us think outside the box — like maybe the Farm Bill is the problem?
    E. Help us develop our women’s authority, not our capacity to beg. The recent and on-going teachers’ strikes are an example.
    F. Support and grow the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (and Plate to Politics) in any or all of the above
    G. Let us know how we can engage with you.

    Thanks for any support you can provide to those of us in the trenches.

    Debbie Hillman
    Evanston, IL

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