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The White House crusade to kill food assistance


‘Tis the season. Though for this White House, it’s not the season for loving kindness — it’s for delivering hunger and misery.

With a series of rule changes to the country’s food assistance program — each of which was previously rejected by Congress, overwhelmingly condemned by experts, and protested by many governors and mayors — the White House is on a crusade to take food out of the mouths of millions of Americans.

Most recently, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would restrict access to food assistance, beginning April 1 next year, for nearly 700,000 poor adults who don’t qualify for disability benefits and who don’t have children. According to Feeding America, this population is desperately poor, with an average annual income of less than $2,200.

Under the existing rule, this population is already entitled to just three months’ worth of food assistance in a three-year period if they can’t find at least steady part-time work or participate in jobs programs, which often aren’t sufficiently available. States have been allowed to waive these extreme limitations when severe economic hardship is present. This new restriction will take away those waivers — and instead permit states to enforce often impossible work requirements.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has sputtered a disingenuous rationale that the rule change would promote work in a time of low unemployment. The truth tears that pretense to shreds. The Urban Institute has found little evidence for the claim that stricter work requirements for safety net eligibility promote work. Instead, they increase barriers to self-sufficiency and well-being.

Two-thirds of people on food stamps already work or have significant barriers to work. This particular SNAP-eligible population of adults without children includes people with disabilities that don’t qualify for assistance, people with little education who aren’t able to get steady work hours, those who have only seasonal work, and those who live in areas without public transportation or available jobs. Many others are caring for other family members, or lacking stable housing themselves.

These are the very reasons that states have been able to issue waivers, allowing for more than extremely limited access to food assistance. SNAP has proven to be one of the most effective and responsive safety net programs because of this flexibility to respond to difficult economic times, and to stimulate local economies in the process.

This rule change doesn’t promote work — it promotes misery. And it’s only the beginning.

The change is but the first of three proposed rules changes to eligibility for food assistance for poor people, children and families. If they’re all enacted, the three rules changes are estimated to take food out of the mouths of over 5 million struggling people, including people with disabilities, elderly people and at least 1 million children living with hunger. 

This amounts to nothing less than a war on poor people. There is simply no justification for it.

Poverty in our country is a structural problem, accelerated by policies like those under the Trump administration. The good news is that structures can be dismantled. Political will can be changed. But it’s up to all of us.

‘Tis the season to stand up to these misguided and unethical attempts to destroy our safety net and render poor and struggling Americans invisible in their misery.

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Tags Food security in the United States Sonny Perdue Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

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