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Congress is working on crafting a final version of the Farm Bill this week. There’s contentious debate over the bill right now because of a Republican proposal to expand work requirements for people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often referred to as food stamps), a requirement that lays bare a key part of the American ideology of work, with roots in a single line from the New Testament. It has created a quintessentially American moment: one in which politics, race, and class mix with theology to enable elected officials to moralize about who deserves to eat.
Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without dependents have to work for pay to remain eligible for SNAP benefits. Under the version of the Farm Bill passed in the House earlier this year, able-bodied adults 50-59 would be required to have jobs, as would adults caring for children over age 6. (The bill received zero votes from House Democrats.) The bipartisan Senate version of the bill would leave existing requirements in place.
The Trump Administration supports the House version. President Trump tweeted last week that the House version of the bill “with SNAP work requirements will bolster farmers and get America back to work.” (Isn’t this the same president who crows incessantly about the country’s low unemployment rate?) Vice President Pence echoed the president, tweeting that the final version of the bill should “include work requirements for SNAP recipients to restore the dignity of work & fill the job openings that have resulted from our booming economy!”
The dignity of work seems to come at the expense of millions of people’s food security. The research group Mathematica estimates that two million households—most of which include children, seniors, or persons with disabilities—could lose benefits if the House version becomes law.
The idea that there’s dignity in work is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. It sounds like a high-minded ideal. After all, shouldn’t we honor the humble worker’s effort to provide for their family and contribute to the broader social project? The trouble is, that’s not usually how the concept of dignity gets used in public discussion. (You might argue that if we really honored workers, we would make it possible for them to afford a place to live on minimum wage.) More often, the point is that you don’t have any dignity—you don’t deserve any social recognition or benefits—if you aren’t working for wages. It’s not about honor. It’s about shame.
Conservatives who advocate work requirements often cite Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10) It’s the kind of pithy dictum that quickly seems like common sense when uttered in a public debate. It sounds definitive. It sounds like it settles the whole issue. (Meanwhile, groups on the religious left cite a range of other biblical passages to argue against the requirements.)
Of course, leaving aside the issue of whether we should turn to Paul in crafting legislation, the statement paints over the nuances of many people’s actual lives. Someone who’s doing a lot of unpaid labor in their community isn’t “unwilling to work.” Likewise, a parent caring for children over six. Or someone who doesn’t have an internet connection and thus can’t log their hours in the benefit program’s database. As the Mathematica analysis shows, a policy that in principle aims to get everyone to work still sweeps away many who face more challenging conditions.
But if the real point of the work requirement is ideological, then there don’t have to be any actual people receiving benefits while shirking all day for it to serve its purpose. The requirement reinforces the shame of not working. It reduces workers’ bargaining power since SNAP recipients can’t stay out of the job market hoping for higher wages. And given the longstanding racist myths about those who receive public benefits, it appeases (and reinforces) white resentment toward people of color.
The current Farm Bill expires at the end of the month. Considering that the two legislative chambers will need to find a compromise on a new bill soon, there’s good reason to think the expanded work requirement won’t make it into the final version. The current work requirements will stand regardless. It would be better, though, if Congress could build policies on something more fundamental than the dignity of work: the dignity of human beings.