Inside the Florida group 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 Americans 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 due to 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 Americans 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.There’s no better time for individuals to move from welfare dependency into the workforce.Tarren Bragdon, ceo of the foundation for government accountabilityWhile 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 told NBC News 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 strategyIn 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.”Washington inroadsCompared with older, better-funded think tanks and lobbying groups across the political spectrum, the FGA and 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 about 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,…

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