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A Food Fight Worth Having

The White House can force a farm-bill debate on work and food stamps.

By WSJ Editorial Board

An old line from writer P.J. O’Rourke is that the two most terrifying words in Washington are “bipartisan consensus,” and the Senate farm bill looks like a classic example. Before it went on its Fourth of July recess the Senate whooped through, 86-11, a farm bill whose only imagined virtue is broad support from both parties. At least there’s still a chance to improve the final product, particularly on work incentives in welfare.

The farm bill is a Beltway totem that features handouts for agriculture interests and funding for food stamps. The House passed a farm bill in June that includes new incentives in food stamps to help Americans return to work amid the best job market in more than a decade. The Senate bill includes no such changes.

The two chambers will have to sort out their differences, and the House reforms deserve to prevail. The concept is simple: Require work or training for beneficiaries age 18 to 59 who are not disabled or caring for a young child. The current program has ostensible work requirements that states have managed to elude.

The Foundation for Government Accountability lent intellectual firepower in drafting the House bill and has documented how states exploit waivers meant for areas with persistent high unemployment. California’s San Mateo County hasn’t had a jobless rate above 4% since 2014, but work requirements are waived.

The House bill also includes a provision that requires a person to cooperate with child support enforcement officials or forego benefits. Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute noted recently that less than half of poor single-parent families, many of which are eligible for assistance, don’t have a formal child support arrangement. Cash assistance is a lever to encourage deadbeat dads to pay up.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas didn’t include these changes in the Senate bill ostensibly because he wanted support from Democrats who won’t abide changes to food stamps. This meant leverage for ranking committee Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, whose definition of “bipartisan” is when Republicans do what she wants.

The Trump Administration in a policy statement praised the House bill as “clearly a step toward meaningful welfare reform” and expressed concern over the food-stamp deficiencies in the Senate version. The White House has leverage of its own if it’s willing to veto a bill without the food-stamp fixes. Senate Republicans will say they can’t crack 60 votes to elude a filibuster, but this is a debate worth having.

Most of the discussion on food stamps is about single parents and children, who will continue to be the majority of recipients. But millions of working-age men dropped out of the labor force during the recession and haven’t returned. Businesses are so desperate for workers in a tight labor market that a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Indiana is offering a $150 signing bonus, among many similar anecdotes.

This crisis of work has been made worse by scourges like the opioid crisis, but welfare programs haven’t helped. What’s bewildering is that Democrats seem willing to write off so much human potential as permanent wards of the state. Republicans shouldn’t pass up a chance to show the public that it’s the party of opportunity and advancement.