Trump’s USDA threatens food security for hard-working Americans

As a black man who benefited from government food assistance for a year or so in my youth, I detected some telling omissions from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE’s State of the Union address. In the president’s recitation of anniversaries we’ll commemorate in 2019 — such as 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing and 75 years since D-Day — he failed to mention the 400 years that blacks have survived American capitalism.

In 1619, the first Africans arrived in Virginia as property, an arrangement that became chattel economics. The president likewise failed to telegraph that his administration is jeopardizing food assistance for America’s needy with a proposed rule that places barriers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and essentially perpetuates the United States’ history of structural violence over those 400 years.

ADVERTISEMENT

Although Trump signed a clean farm bill in December, his administration plans to impose work requirements on SNAP recipients through executive order — potentially disqualifying 755,000 beneficiaries. The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 authorized the structure and funding for SNAP (still known as food stamps), but the proposed rule would limit benefits to three months for unemployed and underemployed persons without dependent children. This would undo a central feature of the farm bill. Scores of advocates for the needy intend to express opposition to the proposal during a public comment period through April 2.

Who are the Americans utilizing SNAP? Some are like Utika Byrd of Pleasantville, N.J., a member of the congregation at Mount Zion Baptist Church and a nontraditional junior at Rutgers University-Mays Landing. She returned to school after having dropped out years ago to raise her son. She intends never to apply for SNAP again, in light of the Trump administration’s rule to shrink the pool of those eligible for the food security program. Last September, as the 2014 farm bill approached expiration, Byrd remarked: “Most days I feel they aren’t really worth all the trouble to get them, and that’s their deterrent. They make it hard for you to get food stamps so that you give up seeking assistance.”

Discouraging applicants has worked in Byrd’s case, she says. Last fall, she attempted a third enrollment in SNAP, only to lose her benefits less than two months after approval. Byrd, whose 24-year-old son no longer is a dependent, says county personnel administering the program offered a no definitive explanation for the discontinuation of the benefit, and repeatedly misplaced critical components of her paperwork, such as her proof of income. Now, she says, “I’d rather avoid the aggravation of the SNAP office and just buy my items out of pocket by moving money around.”  

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) argues, “SNAP lifted 3.6 million Americans out of poverty in 2016, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. SNAP is nearly as effective as the Earned Income Tax Credit in lifting families above the poverty line, and far more effective than any other program in lifting families out of deep poverty.” The imposition of work requirements for non-parents and parents without requisite custody belies the president’s vision for America — of “boundless potential for compromise, cooperation and the common good.”

In his speech, Trump adjudged the state of America “an economic miracle.” But what is the miraculous quality of snatching food from more than three-quarters of a million Americans? Does one in eight food-insecure Americans point to positive economic awe? Can we safely celebrate economic prosperity when 43 million human beings live disposed to the violence of poverty?

Prior to the passage of the clean farm bill, the House bill had threatened to leave 5 million of the current SNAP enrollees with limited options for securing food as a result of increased work requirements and senseless restrictions on certain formerly incarcerated persons. The president’s recent direction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revives those effects. This demonstrates, at best, a willful ignorance of the food plight and, at worst, an intentional betrayal of hard-working Americans who are optimistic that food remains a universal right.

Hunger exposes the sin of structurally-enforced poverty and appalling zip code injustice. The USDA’s proposed rule strategically, bureaucratically and undemocratically upholds hunger. With such a rule penalizing low-income people, the United States fails to live up to its promise as a political and economic light in the world.

Willie D. Francois is senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., the president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, and a communications fellow at Community Change.