Owning up to the failures of welfare reform

Owning up to the failures of welfare reform
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Earlier this month, the Trump administration approved a new rule for SNAP that will cut an estimated 700,000 unemployed people from the program. 

The administration argues that cutting people who are out of work off of SNAP will nudge them into the workforce and onto a path of independence. Democrats have roundly decried the decision, which Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeDangerously fast slaughter speeds are putting animals, people at greater risk during COVID-19 crisis Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds MORE (D-Ohio) described as “the latest act of cartoonish villainy by the Trump administration." 

However, it is too easy to simply attribute this latest decision to the cruel excesses of our current president and his staff. The most recent attacks on SNAP are modeled on the template of welfare reforms passed in the 1990s and the failed bi-partisan logic that jobs are a path out of poverty.


Since the 1990s, policymakers have been selling the “bootstraps” myth that if poor people go to work, they can escape poverty. The reality is that women who left welfare for low-wage work in the 1990s found little relief from the grinding poverty they had known when they were on assistance. 

A recent study from the Brookings Institution found that nearly half of American workers have low-wage jobs. The Trump administration has argued that tightening work requirements for SNAP makes sense, given today’s historically low unemployment rate. However, even with the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, wages have failed to rise.

Policymakers have responded to decades of stagnant wages and widespread economic insecurity by expanding some public assistance programs to "make work pay."  Starting in 2001, policymakers made it easier for families to access "work supports" like SNAP that subsidize low-income workers’ wages. Since 2001, the fastest-growing demographic on the food stamp rolls have been low-wage workers and their families.

To be sure, unemployed people are much worse off than low-wage workers. Since the passage of welfare reforms in the 1990s, many more women have found themselves without work or welfare, becoming part of a growing group demographers term “disconnected families."  

Researchers have tied the significant rise in the number of people living in extreme poverty, defined as living on $2 a day or less, in the United States to the passage of welfare reforms that restricted access to cash for needy families. 


The World Bank found that 3.2 million Americans lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013. Trump’s latest SNAP rule promises to increase the devastating hardships faced by people living in extreme poverty in the US by cutting their access to food assistance.

However, taken together, welfare reforms over the past twenty years have contributed to an expanding low-wage labor market where millions of workers have to depend on public assistance programs like SNAP to make ends meet. 

We have also seen the creation of a group of people living in extreme poverty who serve as a warning to everyone else about what can befall those who cannot find a job. 

In Dickinson’s research on food insecurity, people she met who were out of work were keenly aware of the possibility of falling into what one woman called “that totally forgotten group” and desperate to find any work under almost any conditions. 

As she put it, “I’ll start from the bottom. I have no choice but to find something.” Cultivating that kind of desperation is the point of Trump’s new SNAP rule. But the cruelty and victim-blaming are neither new nor unprecedented. 

Tying welfare benefits like cash and food assistance to an obligation to work will always produce hunger and poverty in the absence of a commitment to full employment. As long as policymakers refuse to address low wages and what Civil Rights leaders like Coretta Scott King called the “economic violence of unemployment,” their claims that a job is a path out of poverty will ring hollow. 

Recent calls for a federal jobs guarantee by Democratic presidential candidates may signal a break with the failed project of work-first welfare. The question is then, is the Democratic party ready to own up to the failures of welfare reform, or will they be satisfied with pointing fingers when the Trump administration takes these policies a step too far?

Maggie Dickinson is an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Guttman Community College (CUNY). She is the author of "Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net." Megan A. Carney is an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow (2018-19) with The OpEd Project. She is the author of "The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders" and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.