At Thanksgiving, Trump’s public charge policy threatens food security

Thanksgiving commemorates the idea of the native peoples of North America sharing their harvest to save recently arrived immigrants from starvation. A recent proposal by the Trump administration would do just the opposite — not only denying welcome to immigrants, but also threatening the food security of millions of citizens and noncitizens in the United States. 

On Oct. 10, the Trump administration proposed a reinstatement of the “public charge” rule, which would bar immigrants who “unduly rely on public assistance” including vital programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) from a path to citizenship or other legal status.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE’s tactics should not be considered as simply part of a larger strategy to curtail immigration into the United States. Restrictive, anti-immigrant rhetoric such as the “public charge” has been routinely used by the GOP to justify decreased spending on all forms of welfare and distract from an ever-expanding gap between the rich and poor. 

Rather than reinstating the public charge rule, we should double down on efforts to increase enrollment in SNAP among families and individuals who qualify.

The public charge rule has historically served as a means by which the U.S. government assesses the inadmissibility or deportability of an individual based on the degree to which that person is burdening the public. Even though the rule has not included the use of certain non-cash programs for nearly two decades, its threat alone has deterred immigrants from using public benefits to which they are entitled, such as SNAP.

In my own research on food insecurity in the United States, I found that many immigrant households opted out of enrolling in SNAP, despite their eligibility to receive SNAP benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children. Aside from stigma, immigrant women cited concerns about becoming a public charge and thereby interfering either with their petitions for legal status or being able to reunite with children or elderly relatives from who they had been living apart for years. Although the United States had officially eliminated the public charge rule from use of SNAP more than a decade prior, my research participants remained skeptical nonetheless about utilizing welfare assistance, suggesting that the rhetoric of public charge endured beyond its formal implementation.

Food banks around the United States have been behind many of the campaigns to debunk myths around SNAP and to increase enrollment among those who are eligible. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has also funded outreach to promote SNAP enrollment, citing the substantial economic impacts: Every $1 in SNAP benefits translates to $1.80 in local economic activity. Nonetheless, under-enrollment remains a widespread problem with less than 50 percent of individuals who would be eligible for assistance through SNAP actually applying and receiving benefits.

When we tell immigrants that their use of welfare assistance makes them unworthy of citizenship in this country, we also signal to U.S.-born individuals who are either eligible or receiving welfare assistance that they too are unworthy. 

Stigma around welfare utilization is already so widespread that most of us are probably more familiar with stigmatizing terms such as “welfare queen” than we are with the names of actual programs. Contrary to popular belief, nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children (44 percent), elderly (11 percent), and disabled adults (10 percent). Our country promises to help those who need it, and yet so shames those who qualify that half of would-be recipients do not accept the help they can and should request. 

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Programs like SNAP are among the only mechanisms currently in place that even scratch the surface of economic inequality in our country. The average SNAP household monthly benefit is $254, hardly a fortune.

Supporters of the impending public charge rule may claim the country can’t afford to support the most vulnerable, or argue that immigrants don’t pay taxes. But in fact, almost of them do in sales, income and local taxes. While such programs are indeed costly, the potential cost of not caring for fellow citizens and noncitizens are astronomical.

One report estimated that food insecurity costs the American public over $160 billion annually in poor health outcomes and additional health care such as emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Furthermore, denying people assistance doesn’t just hurt individual families suffering from hunger and food insecurity; it hurts all of us in lost federal dollars in our local economies.

Reinstating the public charge rule seems unlikely to make real change in an immigrant population already fearful of persecution. It’s not likely to do any good. But it may do very real harm both materially to the 46 million or more people in the United States already experiencing food insecurity and symbolically to immigrants who have already endured one blow after another.

Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of “The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders.” She is also director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies.