By: Emily Cleath
The truth about perpetual poverty in this country is buried beneath fear and lies. A shocking one in seven Americans are receiving food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Worse, they are often viewed as lazy scam artists living high on the hog of public assistance when some honest day’s work would do. These shirking freeloaders should apparently “get a job” instead of stealing from America’s coffers. There’s scant awareness that the average food stamps allotment is a measly $4/day, or that most SNAP recipients are seniors, children, and people with disabilities who, at least as of now, aren’t expected to work for their daily bread.
Everyone else receiving food stamps is in fact subject to work requirements. Since 1996, federal policy has mandated a three-month time limit on receiving SNAP benefits in any three-year period. This applies to “able-bodied” adults under age 50 without dependents (“ABAWD’s”) unless they meet the 20 hour/week work or community service requirements, which they have to regularly, rigorously prove.
Red tape doesn’t help the large majority of “able-bodied” people receiving food stamps who are already working or are between jobs. Workers who need food stamps to supplement their poverty-level income comprise the fastest growing segment of SNAP recipients. This is the real problem with food stamps: not how many SNAP recipients aren’t working, but how many of them are. The program was never meant to be a taxpayer-funded subsidy to low-wage employers, but that is what it’s become. And the taxpayers include those same low-wage workers getting food stamps.
The time limit rule also regularly mis-categorizes people as ABAWD who have trouble proving they’re not. These folks typically are not “able-bodied” but their physical or mental disability is undiagnosed or undocumented. Or they do have dependents but they don’t live with them. Or they are working but are self-employed or at under-the-table jobs. Or they struggle with any of the common paperwork problems at the understaffed PA Department of Human Services. Routinely, advocates with Just Harvest, Pittsburgh-based anti-poverty organization, help people who are wrongly denied SNAP.
One of the saving graces of the federal rule on SNAP time limits is that states can waive them in times and places of high unemployment, as nearly all did during the recent recession and many still do in struggling geographic areas. But that’s about to change. In early December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a rule change that would strictly curtail states’ ability to respond compassionately to their local economies. This tightening of the time limits rule will immediately put the food assistance benefits of nearly 700,000 Americans at risk, including more than 90,000 Pennsylvanians and 1,900 people in Allegheny County.
Those 1,900 are a small portion of SNAP recipients (about 1%) of all those getting food stamps in Allegheny County now. The Trump Administration claims this is needed to get people out of their assistance hammock and back to work. But these folks face significant barriers to steady employment. Pushing them into hunger won’t make them more employable.
SNAP time limits don’t address the chronic barriers to regular employment that accompany a life in poverty: a lack of education or skills, low literacy, a prior criminal record, housing insecurity, and inadequate transportation. Tying food assistance to work requirements does nothing to help people trying to deal with domestic violence or get a degree. It does nothing to provide better employment opportunities to people stuck in less-than-part-time jobs.
A time limit on food stamps doesn’t help people of color who experience disproportionately higher rates of unemployment due to racist hiring, promotion, and retention practices. It does nothing to help the geographic areas of higher than average unemployment they typically inhabit, burdened by chronic disinvestment – areas like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Allegheny County, that states, including Pennsylvania, must now subject to the time limits rule.
In addition to states’ administrative costs for mandating SNAP time limits, the rule change will take $15 billion in food stamps out of the economy. Just Harvest works with local retailers to carry fresh produce in areas that lack access to supermarkets. For many of these retailers, SNAP dollars comprise 40% or more of their revenue. SNAP helps keep store doors open in neighborhoods that supermarkets find “not profitable enough” to serve.
President Trump should want to reduce the number of people who have to rely on SNAP to keep food on the table. But doing so by blocking access to the program is like reducing cancer diagnoses by making health care harder to afford. This rule change is just one of three such measures the Administration issued this past year.
The president should be promoting self-sufficiency and boosting the economy by calling for investments in the nation’s workforce and low-income communities. His administration should be pushing to raise the minimum wage, increase funding for education and child care, expand tax credits for low-income workers, and restore the $2 billion in employment and job training programs that Congress has cut since 2001.
The SNAP rule change will go into effect on April 1 unless stopped by the courts. Just Harvest will continue to work with our allies to protect and strengthen SNAP wherever possible and to advance economic justice in public policy at all levels of government. We hope you’ll join us. For more information, see: http://www.justharvest. org or call, 412-431-8960.
Emily Cleath is the Communications Coordinator of Just Harvest, a Center for Action Against Hunger.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 1. February, 2020. All rights reserved.