This Florida nonprofit is pushing to slash food stamp rolls nationwide
“We’ve been hiding in plain sight all along,” Tarren Bragdon said of his 12-year-old nonprofit group, the Foundation for Government Accountability.
The Naples, Florida-based think tank has been among the conservative groups publicly cheerleading GOP efforts to tighten work requirements for safety net programs long before debt ceiling negotiators in Washington agreed to expand those rules for food stamp recipients late Saturday night.
While the White House and Republicans now turn to selling their pact to lawmakers in both parties, low-income people in many states already face narrowing access to key benefits programs regardless of how the high-wire debt limit fight unfolds in Congress. That is partly because of the state-level strategy with which the FGA has been quietly racking up wins, despite lacking the clout or funding of major conservative K Street institutions that also support shrinking the federal safety net.
In recent interviews, half a dozen hunger relief groups across the country named the FGA as their top adversary in an escalating policy fight over safety net benefits, citing the group more frequently than any other. One aid organization feared drawing attention to its efforts, worried about triggering an FGA lobbying blitz to curb food stamp payments in its home state.
More than 42.5 million people were enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as of February, the latest data available, receiving an estimated $6 per day for help buying groceries. That tally was up 3.2% from a year earlier but reflects the month before enhanced pandemic-era benefits expired for millions.
Bragdon, a former state representative from Maine who has served as the foundation’s CEO and president since launching it, estimates only about 20% of the FGA’s policy work addresses welfare and unemployment. But the think tank and its lobbying arm have been a driving force on those issues — often serving as the sole providers of research presented in state legislatures to support the idea that tighter access to safety net programs spurs more people to work.
While recent research shows the highest food-stamp enrollments are typically in low-unemployment states, that longtime conservative argument against generous public assistance has proved compelling in the current economy. In its 2022 annual report, the foundation touted “more than 45 unemployment and welfare policy victories to move Americans back to work and stop wasteful spending that encourages people to stay home.”
“There’s no better time for individuals to move from welfare dependency into the workforce,” Bragdon said before the debt limit deal was reached, “with almost 10 million open jobs, with many starting jobs beginning at $12, $14 an hour.”
The goal, he said, is to “help make them self-sufficient so that they can experience the American dream.”
A state-by-state strategy
In late April, Kansas lawmakers tightened SNAP work rules, voting largely along party lines to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a measure requiring most recipients ages 50-59 to work at least 30 hours per week or attend mandatory job training.
The FGA, like many policy nonprofit groups, maintains a lobbying organization, called the Opportunity Solutions Project. State legislative records show that the OSP last year hired local lobbyist Steve Greene, who testified in committee hearings in support of stricter criteria for SNAP benefits. In its annual report, the foundation called the narrow veto override a “dramatic win” fueled by a campaign that “used FGA’s research and messaging to educate every member on the issue.”
The think tank supports “universal work requirements for welfare programs” across the board. But as Bragdon put it, “Our business strategy is to provide a menu of reforms, but then for state or federal policymakers to decide what makes the most sense for them to advance, given their dynamics and climate.” The FGA’s annual report includes a map of 33 “states of opportunity for 2023,” labeled either “redder and better” or “same and steady.”
In line with that modular approach, work requirements aren’t the only policy tool the group endorses to prod recipients of public support into the workforce.
Last March, a GOP supermajority in Idaho enacted new limits on the state’s ability to waive SNAP work rules for recipients in high unemployment areas. In a committee hearing, Republican state Rep. Kevin Andrus presented FGA senior research fellow Scott Centurino to provide “national context.” When a health department official testified that the proposal could shrink federal funding for the state’s SNAP program, Andrus countered, “This legislation helps individuals to get on their feet and working.”
In a Utah House hearing in 2021 on a nearly identical proposal, Republican Rep. Steve Christiansen called up an OSP representative to explain it to lawmakers. The measure was later defeated.
Iowa’s Republican supermajority passed a bill in April taking a different approach. The new rule would factor the value of liquid assets, including personal property like cars, into the income limits for receiving food assistance or Medicaid — a policy known as an asset test. State lobbying disclosures show the OSP paid $14,250 to a consultant who lobbied for the bill, which was sent last week to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. She is expected to sign it into law.
Some critics of these moves see less of a locally tailored policy approach than a partisan campaign for a long-standing conservative goal.
“We had national Republican Party politics playing out in our legislative agenda this year,” said Michelle Book, CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa. “They continue to say, ‘We’re going to beat down unemployment benefits, we’re going to beat down SNAP benefits, because this will produce more workers,’ and we’ve not seen it.”
Instead, Book said the food bank has experienced higher demand this year, after Iowa joined the handful of states that ended pandemic-era enhancements to SNAP payments before they expired nationally March 1. Last March, the organization served 110,000 individuals, she said. It served 169,000 in March.
The new asset test would disqualify low-income Iowans for SNAP benefits if the value of their personal liquid assets — including checking and savings accounts, and personal property excluding one vehicle — hit a $15,000 cap.
“So people can’t save for retirement, they can’t save to educate their children, they can’t save for emergencies, they can’t have additional vehicles to get additional family members to work,” Book said. She added that the Food Bank of Iowa is now doubling its Des Moines distribution center to 60,000 square feet to buy and dispense more food.
Some opponents of the asset test rules also pointed to state estimates finding that implementing them would cost Iowa taxpayers almost $18 million in the policy’s first three years.
“We believe that the welfare safety net needs to prioritize the truly needy,” Bragdon said, adding that “somebody’s primary car is exempt from any kind of asset test.”
Compared with older, better-funded think tanks and lobbying groups across the political spectrum, the FGA and the OSP represent a small operation with limited reach in Washington.
The foundation employs four “federal affairs managers” responsible for sharing policy ideas with lawmakers, according to a spokesperson. Bragdon said the FGA now has almost 50 full-time staffers and around 60 contractors, including 15 attorneys.
The group — which has also advocated for issues ranging from curtailing ranked-choice voting to loosening child labor laws — reported securing $15 million in fresh fundraising last year, up 26% since 2020.
The OSP, a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization that the IRS specifies “must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare,” has a roughly $4 million budget and deploys lobbyists in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., Bragdon said.
Federal lobbying disclosures show the OSP paid $130,000 in the first quarter of this year to lobbyist Robin Walker, who also serves as a senior visiting fellow at the organization, for “food stamp reform, work requirements and TANF,” or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
As is common among privately run policy groups, the FGA and OSP don’t share many details about their funding sources. Bragdon estimated that the FGA gets 75% of its funding from individuals — “mostly entrepreneurs who have lived the American dream” — and around 25% from other foundations, with less than 1% from public companies.
Asked about media reports that the organization’s donors include conservative powerhouses such as Koch-network entities and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the spokesperson said the group “protects the identity of our donors as a courtesy to them.”
The FGA has already cultivated influential allies on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who “has worked with the Foundation for Government Accountability for years,” a spokesperson said. “He is proud to have their support on several of his proposals to reform Washington and make it work better for the American people including his Let’s Get to Work Act.”
The FGA praised that bill, which aims to tighten work requirements for SNAP and public housing clients, when Scott introduced it in January. “Nobody should be dependent on government that can work,” he said in a short FGA video about the issue last month, “Nobody.”
At least two other congressional Republicans have published endorsements by Bragdon of their own recent proposals to tighten work requirements.
Other FGA allies are involved in shaping agricultural policy, such as Rep. Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican who was elected in 2020 to the seat held by former Rep. Ted Yoho, for whom Cammack previously served as deputy chief of staff.
Like her predecessor, Cammack sits on the House Agriculture Committee that every five years debates the reauthorization of the farm bill, of which nutrition programs like SNAP are by far the biggest component by funding. Those talks are underway now, as the current package expires Sept. 30.
Cammack was also appointed to Republicans’ new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government and joined Bragdon last summer for a virtual panel discussion of her proposal to roll back executive branch regulatory powers.
The foundation has also built ties with Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. While Thompson has voiced skepticism about expanding states’ ability to waive SNAP work rules, he has signaled openness to tweaking the program.
“What frustrates me most at this moment is my Democrat colleagues have already drawn a line in the sand — this program will not be touched in the next reauthorization of the farm bill,” he said in a hearing last spring.
Thompson’s offices didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for Cammack declined to comment.
On SNAP but working
Some economists who study the relationship between SNAP and employment question whether tightening access to the program drives more people to work.
University of Illinois researchers found last month that many states with the highest SNAP participation rates — such as Louisiana and West Virginia — also boast the lowest unemployment rates. Since the Great Recession of 2008, SNAP participation and unemployment have “diverged,” they said.
“We have a lot of people who are working but not earning enough money to get out of poverty,” said Jonathan Coppess, one of the report’s authors. “So what is the point of policy built around work requirements when it isn’t an unemployment issue?”
Asset tests in particular have become increasingly controversial. Anti-hunger advocates recently pleaded with Texas officials to vote through an upcoming House bill that would update the state’s existing vehicle asset test, which was last revised in 2001. Inflation has driven up automotive values substantially since then, pushing many SNAP users over the threshold to qualify.
Some advocates and researchers also criticize how FGA has presented data. For example, the group shared materials with NBC News claiming that almost 75% of “able-bodied adults on food stamps do not work at all,” using figures that lean on monthly point-in-time snapshots from the Agriculture Department, rather than longer periods that experts say may better reflect employment trends from sources such as the Census Bureau.
A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-of-center think tank, cautioned against overstating the unemployment status of so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents,” citing high turnover and fluctuating hours in many low-wage jobs.
Self-reported food stamp data may also be incomplete, said Ed Bolen, the CBPP’s director of SNAP state strategies, because under SNAP reporting rules, small changes in income do not have to be reported between certifications.
“A lot of workers are in and out of the labor market through no fault of their own, just the nature of the work,” Bolen said. “It’s important to look at the work engagement over a period of time.”
Not all of FGA’s efforts to cull SNAP rolls have succeeded, including in Republican statehouses. The group’s push to enact asset tests in Ohio in 2021 was defeated after a GOP lawmaker blocked it, saying he wanted to ensure recipients “have food on their tables so that they can take care of their families.” More recently, two proposals to tie food stamp benefits to child support cooperation were defeated in Montana and Kansas.
Bragdon suggested he still sees the latter issue as a potential messaging win in debates around trimming SNAP enrollments.
“Half of the folks that we’re talking about are men,” he said. “A lot of times when folks think about welfare, they think about the typical single mom that’s profiled as part of a welfare cash assistance conversation.”
While expanding work requirements for safety net programs remain a sticking point in debt ceiling talks, spending cuts have come to the fore in recent days. But Bragdon said the FGA has been pushing “multiple legislative vehicles to accomplish the same policy.”
“You have the debt ceiling, you have the farm bill, but you also have the appropriations bill,” he said.
Before the last farm bill reauthorization, in 2018, Thompson appeared in an FGA-produced video along with several other Republican lawmakers to promote expanded work requirements, using language that the think tank is still deploying.
Referring to people “using the SNAP program because of financial distress in their lives — unemployed, underemployed, maybe living in poverty for generations,” Thompson said, “they really need to have a shot at the American dream.”
CORRECTION (May 25, 2023, 5:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the estimated percentage of FGA’s individual donations. It is 75%, not 35%. This article also has been edited to clarify the effect of SNAP rules on self-reported data.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com