Tuesday, April 2 is the last day to comment on the USDA’s cruel and short-sighted proposal to limit access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) benefits. The proposal would restricts states’ ability to waive time limits on SNAP benefits for “able-bodied adults without dependents.” Those limits are currently three months of SNAP benefits every 36 months. The proposal estimates 755,000 adults will lose food assistance.
The proposal states that it is “consistent with the Administration’s focus on fostering self-sufficiency.” It is certainly consistent with the administration’s efforts to take public assistance away from some of the neediest among us, but the assertion that such efforts will encourage self-sufficiency is not supported by compelling evidence. As with the Trump administration’s campaign to deny Medicaid to childless adults who aren’t working, this SNAP rule is more concerned about the possibility that a small number of supposedly “undeserving” people might receive a benefit than with the widespread damage removal of those benefits will cause.
The vast majority of Medicaid and SNAP recipients either work or fall into one of the approved exemption categories, such as caring for young children, being elderly, or having a disability. Meeting one of those descriptions and demonstrating it to officials’ satisfaction are two different things, though. Administrative hurdles often result in people losing benefits to which they are entitled, and those facing the many stresses of living in poverty may not always manage to complete the required paperwork on time. Beneficiaries with unpredictable work schedules — which are increasingly common in low-wage positions — may dip below the required number of work hours. Those with disabilities may have health conditions that make it impossible to keep a job, but still not manage to meet the strict tests for receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
For those who aren’t employed, rescinding benefits that support health can make it harder to find work. And at the community level, fewer SNAP and Medicaid recipients can translate to fewer jobs, because the recipients are directing dollars to local stores and healthcare providers. A Center for American Progress (CAP) estimate suggests that the proposed SNAPrule will mean $1.5 billion less in SNAP spending, which will result in the loss of nearly 18,900 jobs in 2020 alone.
CAP’s Donovan Hicks points out that certain communities are particularly at risk from this rule’s harmful impacts: Rural communities, where good jobs are particularly hard to come by; Black and Latinx households, which are especially likely to face food insecurity; people with disabilities, who are at elevated risk of both food insecurity and losing benefits due to administrative errors; people with criminal records, who are often denied jobs for which they’re qualified; LGBTQ people, who are more likely than their non-LGBTQ counterparts to receive SNAP; and women, who are disproportionately likely to work low-wage jobs.
Proponents of work requirements sometimes portray them as a kind of “tough love,” suggesting the temporary burden of hunger or untreated health conditions will leave people better off in the long run because pain will spur them to obtain employment. To see if this is really what happens, we can look at what happened after “welfare reform” under President Clinton imposed work requirements and time limits on families seeking cash assistance. In a summary of evidence that accumulated in the two decades after that legislation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ LaDonna Pavetti reported, “Stable employment among recipients subject to work requirements proved the exception, not the norm” and “The large majority of individuals subject to work requirements remained poor, and some became poorer.”
A few days ago, a federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s approval of Medicaid work requirements in Kentucky and Arkansas — after the Arkansas policy has already harmed many of the state’s residents. I hope this proposed cut to SNAP benefits also doesn’t make it to implementation. We have too much suffering and inequality already in this country; let’s not make it worse in order to advance dubious claims of promoting self-sufficiency.