A customer shops in a grocery store on July 15, 2022, in Houston, Texas.

A customer shops in a grocery store on July 15, 2022, in Houston, Texas. / Getty Images

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is pitching changes to the federal food stamp program that would increase the number of people who have to show they're working to be eligible to receive help with their groceries.

The proposal is a part of a larger legislative framework to raise the nation's debt limit for one year, while scaling back federal spending.

Right now, many people ages 18-50 who rely on food stamps are subject to work reporting requirements. McCarthy is looking to raise that age range to 56. Advocates worry that shift, if passed, could mean people get shut out of the program.

"It's pretty foreseeable that this is going to lead to more food hardship," said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center. "It doesn't do anything to improve people's employability. ... It's just going to take food away from people that are unable to meet the documented requirements."

More than 9.5 million adults ages 50 and older rely on food stamps, according to the 2022 AARP Research Survey.

The proposed change expands the group of people subject to requirements

In order to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, there are work requirements for people ages 18 to 49 who do not have dependents and are considered "capable."

The program limits these adults to three months of SNAP benefits during any 36-month period when they cannot show they are employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.

McCarthy's proposal would expand the number of people subject to this rule.

"It hits both those unemployed people and underemployed people. Because often for people to be able to document the sufficient hours of work, it means that they have to have a job of several hours," Vollinger said. "And for some of the lower wage jobs, or a second job that people get, their work schedules can be pretty unpredictable. And sometimes they lack work hours as businesses cut back."

Democrats are not on board

While the House Committee on Agriculture Chair GT Thompson, R-Pa., called the McCarthy proposal "sensible," the panel's ranking member David Scott, D-Ga., called it " a non-starter" and "ungodly."

If Republicans in the House pass McCarthy's plan, it faces an uphill battle in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Democrats have said they are not willing to pass any bill that links the debt limit to spending cuts. And they are particularly critical of efforts to require work requirements for those on assistance programs.

"Unfortunately, some Republicans want to take food out of the mouths of vulnerable children and families to pay for irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthiest among us," said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "That should be an affront to all Americans. Our economy and the full faith and credit of the United States is not some bargaining chip."

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