December 5, 2019; Register-Guard, Washington Post, and NBC News
We have been here before. This isn’t the first time this administration has planned cuts to successful programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)—also known as food stamps—to “save money” and “move people from welfare to work.” This move comes despite the fact that Congress this year rejected adding work requirements by a 330–83 vote in the House and by a 68–30 vote in the Senate.
While the official claim for the policy change is to encourage low-income Americans to get jobs, the cuts are far more likely to increase hunger than employment. This is a story NPQ has covered, again and again. And yet, at a time of year when we laud giving to those who have the least, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue and Brandon Lipps, the deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, announced this past Wednesday a new rule (the first of three) that aims to scale back public benefits under SNAP for low-income Americans.
If all three rules were implemented, the Urban Institute has estimated that “3.7 million fewer people would receive SNAP in an average month, 2.2 million households would see their average monthly benefits drop by $127, more than three million others would see an average drop of $37 per month, and 982,000 students would lose access to free or reduced lunches,” reports Phil McCausland for NBC News.
This first rule, which is slated to take effect April 1st, would make it harder for states to waive rules that restrict access to SNAP for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who fail to work at least 20 hours a week. As Juliet Linderman of the Associated Press explains, currently, “States can waive this steady employment requirement if they have high unemployment rates or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs. However, the new rule imposes stricter criteria that states must meet in order to issue those waivers, which will be good for one year and will require the governor to support the request.”
The new plan will strip a state’s ability to issue waivers unless a city or county has an unemployment rate of six percent or higher.
Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary for the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, said tightening the work requirement would save roughly $5.5 billion over five years. It also would cut benefits for roughly 688,000 SNAP recipients.
In Oregon, Linderman reports that the nonprofit FOOD for Lane County anticipates that many who would lose benefits “meet the SNAP definition of an able-bodied adult (meaning they are not receiving disability benefits), while in reality, [they] aren’t really able-bodied and are trying to receive disability.”
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When these changes were first put forward, more than 70 mayors sent a letter to the administrator for SNAP, asking that this change be reconsidered. They wrote, “This proposal will put children’s health and development at risk by removing their access to healthy school meals, and harm our economy by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur regional and local economic activity.”
Those who suffer from hunger are found in many places in this country. Perhaps these cuts and changes might be understandable if SNAP were a failing program. But it’s not; in fact, it is one of the most successful programs for low-income families.
From an economic perspective, SNAP has proven to be an economic plus. SNAP spending during a recession can have one of the biggest payoffs of all fiscal measures, according to USDA research. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell describes SNAP as countercyclical. This means that during recessions, SNAP enrollment increases almost automatically, without prodding. It helps families, but it also helps blunt the impact of the recession on the economy and speeds recovery. Rampell says food stamps are known as an “automatic fiscal stabilizer.”
So, why is this administration cutting a program with a proven success record?
“SNAP is supposed to be an anti-hunger program, full stop,” says Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois economist who specializes in food insecurity. Getting food stamps does not discourage people from working, and most recipients who can, do work. The value of SNAP is hardly enough for one to live on. The average monthly SNAP benefit is $165, or about $1.83 per meal. Try feeding a family on that amount. And yet, when you add this effort to the administration’s plans for cuts to Medicaid and other social safety net programs, perhaps we are inching toward Rampell’s take on the philosophy of Trump administration: that it doesn’t suck enough to be poor.
Congress might intervene to stop the rule from being implemented before the anticipated April 1st policy start date. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced the Protect SNAP Act, which has attracted 100 cosponsors so far. Of course, passage would require approval in the Republican-controlled Senate, but that might be possible given the Senate’s 2–1 rejection of harsher work rules for SNAP earlier this year.
In the meantime, with the wealthy counting on tax cuts to keep them warm this winter, the nonprofit sector will have a lot to ponder come the New Year, not the least of which will be fighting for access for food stamps for poor people.—Carole Levine