Wrong-headed bill on food assistance raises questions

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

Sometimes it’s easy to understand legislative proposals. Other times, not so much. House File 3, filed early in the Iowa legislature’s 2023 session, falls in the second category. To understand its potential effect on needy people, take a quick look at two preexisting food programs whose nutritional goals differ.

First, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the federal program once called food stamps. It exists to help low-income households and those on Medicaid buy groceries.

Second, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (commonly known as WIC) aims to meet the specific nutritional needs of its designated recipients. WIC doesn’t allow recipients to use those funds for meat, sliced cheese, butter, flour, or fresh produce.

As drafted initially, House File 3 called for the foods prohibited under SNAP to imitate those forbidden under WIC. In other words, the bill ignored the fact that WIC aims to meet nutritional needs specific to pregnant women, their newborns, and young children. Not to the general financially-challenged population.

A three-member Iowa House subcommittee discussed this bill on January 26. It heard strong opposition from a wide variety of organizations and individuals. The subcommittee nevertheless approved the bill along party lines (two to one) and referred it to the full House Health and Human Services Committee.

However, subcommittee members assured those interested that the bill would be changed to remove all its initial grocery prohibitions, except those on pop with sugar and candy.

Those changes may indeed be made. They may already have taken place by the time you’re reading this column. But the entire process raises a number of questions.

First, why was House File 3 drafted with so many grocery prohibitions in the first place? The bill has 39 House sponsors, all Republicans. That’s well over half of the House GOP caucus. With so many members signing on to it at the outset, why is it being scaled back? Is it the vociferous opposition at the subcommittee hearing? Did the dozens of sponsors not read the bill before it went to subcommittee? Why sign on as a sponsor if you’re not willing to defend it?

It’s a lot like the old political aphorism: “Those are my firm, bedrock beliefs. And if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em.”

Second, who, specifically, drafted the bill? Was it the majority leadership of the House, or a few members, or a lobbying group? Did it come from a conservative organization outside the state? The public might like to know where the idea originated. (Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The out-of-state conservative advocacy group Opportunity Solutions Project has drafted similar legislation for Iowa Republicans in the past.)

Third, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to sign off on any state restrictions to the SNAP grocery list. Five states have already submitted similar restrictions to the feds, and USDA has denied all five requests. Why do Iowa House leaders think the federal government will handle Iowa’s request any differently?

The real purpose of House File 3 may not be in its food prohibitions so much as in its eligibility requirements. Some GOP lawmakers have tried for years to reduce the number of Iowans who receive government assistance.

As drafted, House File 3 would put benefits at risk if more than one vehicle is registered to the household. That’s a huge burden for families where more than one member has a job, or for families with children who need to be transported. Rural areas, where job commutes are commonplace and public transportation rare, would be especially hard hit under a one-vehicle restriction.

Another provision of the bill severely limits the value of assets an eligible SNAP recipient household owns. Families with $2,750 to $4,250 in assets or savings would be disqualified from SNAP benefits. That requirement would force elimination of a recipient family’s struggle to salvage a safety net of even that modest amount, let alone an attempt to put something by for a child’s college education. Savings of a few thousand dollars don’t go very far for a large family, even for one of moderate size.         

Under House File 3, if a SNAP recipient receives Medicaid, he or she must work at least 20 hours a week. That’s a difficult task for a one-parent household. The recipient may substitute 20 volunteer hours a week instead, if the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services approves the specific program or programs for which the recipient volunteers. But the amount of time required remains the same.

Obviously House File 3 would demand more administration of the SNAP program in Iowa, since tougher eligibility investigations would require more cross-checking of a recipient’s income level, work week, assets, Medicaid situation, and other factors. How much additional cost to the state that workload would require is unknown. (Editor’s note: In 2019, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that a bill imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients would cost an additional $17 million over two years. That bill contained no SNAP provisions.)

Fraud and abuse in any government program should, of course, be ferreted out. But in its dogged determination to accomplish that goal, House File 3 appears to interfere with the government’s responsibility to meet the legitimate needs of low-income and Medicaid households. Research has found minimal fraud in Iowa’s SNAP program.

Sponsors of the bill should explain why they think House File 3 requires incorporation into the Code of Iowa. Article One of the Iowa Constitution is entitled “Bill of Rights.”

Section Two of that article states, “Government is instituted for the protection, security, and benefit of the people . . .”

It’s not easy to see how this legislation meets that requirement.

Top photo by Jonathan Weiss available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Rick Morain

  • Questions need answering


    Thanks for the drill-down. Well-written, with some snappy quotes (hey, you could have a career in journalism!)


  • good article

    I don’t believe food stamp recipients should be restricted on their purchases. However, the endgame should be getting them to be self-reliant instead of a drag on taxpayers.