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How the debt deal will affect social safety net programs and the climate


Let's turn from politics to what the debt ceiling deal will actually mean for real people. NPR's Jeff Brady and Jennifer Ludden have been tracking the details for their respective beats - energy and climate change for Jeff and social safety net programs for Jennifer. Welcome to you both.


JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: Let's start with you, Jennifer. One of the most contentious points was tougher work requirements, especially for people who get food assistance. So who's affected by the final deal?

LUDDEN: Right, so it will be - the age of people who are subject to work requirements under this program known as SNAP is going to go up from 49 to 54. And we're talking able-bodied adults with no dependents, which, by the way, are a small share of the 42 million people who get food assistance. But these older adults will now have to spend 20 hours a week working or in job training. And for sure, plenty of people work well past age 54. But critics say, you know, it can be tough when you're talking about low-wage jobs. I spoke with Ed Bolen at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He says, you know, in fast food or retail, for example, the hours can be unpredictable, and older people might have more health problems.

ED BOLEN: Those folks might be unable to do the kind of work they used to do 20 years ago, right? They can't find a job in a warehouse because their back - or they're worn out from working. And it's not easy to switch at the age of 52 to a whole different kind of job.

LUDDEN: Bolen also says there's just really very little evidence that work requirements actually help people get jobs. But studies do find that they lead to more people being cut off from government assistance. Now, this debt deal also excludes some people from work requirements - veterans, people who are homeless and young adults exiting foster care. But Bolen says the trick there is whether states can effectively implement it. So, you know, is there a database of veterans? How is someone going to know if a person used to be in foster care? And finally, these changes are not permanent. They're going to expire in 2030.

RASCOE: So what about people who get cash assistance - what used to be called welfare? There are also changes to press more people in that program to get jobs, right?

LUDDEN: Yes, absolutely. I do want to point out this is a much smaller program, fewer than 3 million people, and the payments they get are not that big. But the changes here are not as big as first proposed, but they will make it tougher for states to meet this standard they have to meet, which is basically that half of all families in the program are working. Now, the formula for how they do that is complicated. But economist Liz Oltmans Ananat at Barnard College says it is likely some families will be cut off from cash assistance. Now, the Congressional Budget Office estimates this is going to save the federal government $5 million, but Ananat says it will throw deeply poor families into crisis. Some of them might lose housing. And in the longer term, she says that is going to cost the government far more.

ELIZABETH OLTMANS ANANAT: It leads to higher expenditures on criminal justice, higher expenditures on foster care and lower earnings for children in adulthood, which, of course, translate to lower tax revenues for the government.

LUDDEN: Now, there is something she and others love in this debt deal. States are actually going to track how families do after they stop getting cash assistance. And it sets up a pilot program to see if there is some alternative to work requirements - maybe more training or other support for families - that might help them succeed more in the long run.

RASCOE: So that's something to watch there and see what the results of those studies are. Let's turn now to energy and climate. Jeff, how did approval for the controversial gas pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, end up in the debt deal?

BRADY: Yeah, this was a surprise, especially to the local and environmental groups who've challenged this in court. The 300-mile-long pipeline would move natural gas from West Virginia to supply the southeastern U.S. And including this approval got more members of Congress to vote for the debt ceiling limit. For example, all but one of the four members of the West Virginia delegation, including two Republicans, voted for it. This is going to generate millions of dollars in tax and other revenue for the state. But tucking approval in the debt ceiling bill bypasses the traditional reviews that are already underway. This will essentially get a rubber stamp now. Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous says that sets a bad precedent.

BEN JEALOUS: It sends a sign to big oil, big gas that their fat cat lobbyists can make end runs around the entire federal government every time there's a debt ceiling crisis.

BRADY: Including this pipeline approval in the debt ceiling bill was an unusual move. And groups like the Sierra Club - they're pretty upset with President Biden right now. This runs counter to U.S. climate goals, likely increasing climate-warming emissions instead of decreasing them.

RASCOE: I understand that there was a big change to a key environmental law in this debt ceiling deal, too.

BRADY: Sure. That's the National Environmental Policy Act. It's a 50-year-old law that requires federal agencies to consider how new projects will affect the environment. And those changes will allow companies to draft their own environmental reviews under an agency's guidance. It'll also give the executive branch more flexibility in deciding when a review is required. And it sets deadlines, so even the most complicated environmental reviews will have to be finished within two years now.

RASCOE: Jeff Brady from NPR's Climate Desk and Jennifer Ludden from the National Desk, thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

BRADY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Jennifer Ludden
NPR National Correspondent Jennifer Ludden covers economic inequality, exploring systemic disparities in housing, food insecurity and wealth. She seeks to explain the growing gap between socio-economic groups, and government policies to try and change it.
Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is the Climate and Energy Correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He reports on the intersection of climate change and politics to reveal whether and how the U.S. is meeting its obligations to address the breakdown of the climate. And his reporting examines who's reshaping the energy system and who are the winners and losers. A key element of Brady's reporting is holding accountable those who block or stall efforts to address climate change in an effort to preserve their business.