A bill in the state Senate would tighten eligibility for SNAP benefits, commonly called food stamps. That bill was written, in part, by a conservative, Florida-based think tank that’s pushed similar measures around the country.
To hear Senate Bill 7’s lead sponsor describe it, the proposal is all about lifting people out of poverty. At the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday, Republican Senator Kevin Avard of Nashua said food stamps can be a disincentive to work.
"Getting people back into the work force, helping them to get their feet back on the ground instead of being dependent. And making sure that you don’t got a million dollars in a trust fund and you’re collecting food stamps."
Senator Avard then said he didn’t have evidence of millionaire trust-funders on food stamps, but that it’s possible for it to happen.
So before we get too far, let’s unpack exactly what Avard’s proposal, Senate Bill 7, would do.
Food stamps are funded 100 percent by the federal government. The state picks up half the tab for administering the program. In New Hampshire, about 94,000 people get this money for food, and more than one-third are children.
Senate Bill 7 would tighten eligibility requirements in a few ways. But the biggest impact could be felt by a group of about 17,000 families with children.
Sarah Mattson Dustin is a staff attorney with N.H. Legal Assistance, which opposes this bill.
"This is the way in the door for those working poor families. They are just as poor as other families who perhaps are working less."
Here’s how it works: If you apply for SNAP, the government looks at your income and assets. But if you have kids, the government does the math differently for a simple reason - kids are expensive. So when calculating those families’ finances, the government deducts expenses like utilities and childcare.
Now, the federal government lets states decide if they want to calculate things this way. In New Hampshire, it’s meant 17,000 more families on food stamps.
Senate Bill 7 would prohibit New Hampshire from doing this math – and it would make it tougher for poor, working families with kids to qualify for this federal program. The bill doesn’t save state money. It stops New Hampshire from collecting federal money.
"I think that it is not the kind of New Hampshire-specific legislation that we like to pass here in the Granite State," Mattson Dustin says.
But this legislation is not specific to New Hampshire. Senate Bill 7 got its start in Naples, Florida, with a think tank pushing similar welfare reforms around the country.
The group is called the Foundation for Government Accountability. Josh Archambault is a Senior Fellow there.
"I think the unintended consequences of many of the advocates is that they are damning people to a life of poverty because that by definition is where you have to remain to remain on these programs."
Archambault grew up in New Hampshire, but he lives in Boston. The think tank’s website claims its model reforms have been implemented in 30 states. It also says those policies have, quote, “freed [people] from welfare.”
One of those model reforms is called the HOPE Act. It reads like a Mad Lib for welfare reform. Instead of blanks for verbs and nouns, the blanks are for the names of state welfare departments and programs. And when you look at New Hampshire’s Senate Bill 7, the language appears to be copied word for word from the template on the think tank’s website.
I asked Senator Avard about this.
"So who wrote – did you literally write this bill, pen to paper?"
"Uuuh, I think I had some help," Avard said. "I had some help with Mike Dennehy and a few others."
Mike Dennehy is a local lobbyist for the Foundation for Government Accountability, that Florida think tank.
And let’s be clear: this is not unusual. A lobbyist’s job is to shape legislation, and they do it across the ideological spectrum. What is new is a proliferation of think tanks focused on changing state policy, backed by opaque financing and selective research.
James McGann is the Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
"You don’t need to come up with any sort of novel legislation. Just come up with a template that achieves the objective and put that in as many states as possible."
And now’s the time, especially for conservative advocacy groups. Republicans dominate statehouses and governorships, including top-down control here in New Hampshire. And the Trump Administration has signaled it will hand more power to states.
Think tanks like the Foundation for Government Accountability are taking advantage of that policy window.
Local advocates like Sarah Mattson Dustin says New Hampshire lawmakers should be skeptical of the approach in Senate Bill 7.
"To me there’s simply no good reason to do that other than an ideological one."
Under Senate Bill 7, it’s not clear which of the 17,000 families would lose benefits, and which could reapply and hold onto them.
The bill is opposed by the New Hampshire Food Bank, which fears it won’t be able to feed these families. The Senate Republic Caucus has called it a “common sense bill.”
Senate Bill 7 has the support of top Republicans in the House and Senate.