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Morain

02/02/23

2/2/2023

Sometimes it’s easy to understand legislative proposals. Other times, not so much. House File 3, filed early in the 2023 session of the Iowa Legislature, 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), the program once called Food Stamps. It exists to help low-income households and those on Medicaid buy groceries.

Second, WIC, which aims to meet the specific nutritional needs of its designated recipients: “Women, Infants, and Children.” WIC doesn’t allow recipients to use WIC funds for meat, sliced cheese, butter, flour, or fresh produce.

As filed initially, HF3 calls for the foods prohibited under SNAP to imitate those forbidden under WIC. This means that HF3 ignores the fact that WIC aims to meet nutritional needs specific to pregnant women, their newborns, and young children. Not to the general, though financially challenged, population. 

The three-member Iowa House subcommittee to which HF3 was assigned held an initial meeting last Thursday. It heard strong opposition to the bill from a wide variety of Iowa organizations and individuals. The subcommittee nevertheless approved the bill 2 to 1 and referred it on to the full House Health and Human Services Committee. 

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However, subcommittee members assured those interested that the bill would be changed to remove all its initial grocery prohibitions except those on pop 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 HF3 drafted with so many grocery prohibitions in the first place? The bill has at least 39 House sponsors, all Republicans. That’s well over half of the Iowa 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, first drew up 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. 

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 does the Iowa House leadership think the federal government will handle Iowa’s request any differently?

The real purpose of HF3 may not be in its food prohibitions so much as in its eligibility requirements. Some legislative leaders have tried for years to reduce the number of Iowans who receive government assistance.

One such requirement 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.

A fallout of the asset limit is that a recipient household with two vehicles would probably exceed that limit. That’s a huge burden for households 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.

Under HF3, 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 HF3 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.

Fraud and abuse in any government program should, of course, be ferreted out. But HF3, in its dogged determination to accomplish that goal, appears to interfere with the government’s responsibility to meet the legitimate needs of low-income and Medicaid households. 

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 that “Government is instituted for the protection, security, and benefit of the people . . .” It’s not easy to see how HF3 meets that requirement. ♦

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