When it comes to Senate Bill 7, which lowers the income threshold for food-stamp eligibility, among other changes, Democratic state senator Dan Feltes has some choice words: "One of the worst bills I've ever seen." And, also, "horrible."
Feltes joined The Exchange this week, along with Republican state senator Jeb Bradley, co-sponsor of SB7, who sees things vastly differently.
Bradley says the bill should be considered in its entirety -- that it includes a job-training provision to help improve people's job prospects.
"The intent of the federal food stamp program is to make sure that people who are truly needy have access to food stamps," he said. "But for the working poor, we want to help them and provide them with job training and other opportunities that we have enhanced in New Hampshire over the last few years -- helping businesses be able to stay in New Hampshire, with better tax policy, working on energy issues, trying to lower the cost of health care through Medicaid expansion."
Senator Feltes called the job-training provision in SB7 a watered down version of the Gateway to Work program that had been promoted by then-Governor Maggie Hassan.
"(SB7) simply pays employers to hire folks," he said. "It doesn’t bolster certificate programs in the occupational skills program. You’ve got to work with job-training professionals on actually bolstering our skills program. That’s something we haven't done in New Hampshire."
Greg Moore, N.H. director for Americans For Prosperity, sees the debate as an ideological clash between two world views: "One judges the success of a welfare program by the number of people who are picked up and brought on to it. And the other world view judges performance of these programs by how many people can be moved off welfare."
Both Moore and Bradley say the improved economy is ample reason to tighten eligibility for food stamps -- with many unfilled jobs in the state and entry-level positions that start well above the minimum wage.
During the recession, the federal food stamp program grew from serving about 33 million to as high as 48 million Americans, Bradley said.
"It’s now back down a little bit, which is a good thing, because the economy is improving, and we feel that in combination with the work-training aspect that's part of this bill, it encourages work. It encourages opportunity and success."
But Feltes said work alone is not the issue for people receiving government assistance -- New Hampshire already has the highest percentage of people who are working and receiving public assistance in the country. "What we need to do is increase the minimum wage, do a working-families property tax credit, move forward with affordable childcare so Granite Staters don’t have to choose between work and family," he said.
Right now, Granite Staters who earn up to 185% of the poverty level can qualify for food stamps. So a family of four making $45,000 can qualify for food stamps. Under SB7, a family of four would be cut off at $32,000.
As Marybeth Mattingly explained on The Exchange, that doesn't account for cost of living expenses -- such as childcare, health care coverage, food, rent, and utilities. Mattingly is director of Research on Vulnerable Families at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH.
"That bucket of expenses typically takes between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half times that federal poverty line for families to meet it. So, reducing it to 130% of the poverty threshold really alienates a large share of New Hampshire residents who cannot meet their basic needs."
The bill would also impose a work requirement on able-bodied, childless food-stamp recipients -- which amounts to about 38 people.
The far bigger impact, Feltes said, would be on households with at least one child, amounting to 18,000 households. "This is specifically going after children," he said. "That's what this bill does."
But Senator Bradley said the bill has a "safety valve" built into it, so that if DHHS decides the lower threshold has become a problem, the legislature can raise income eligibility to the current level, restoring benefits to those households.
SB7 gets a hearing in the N.H. House today, April 12.