Last week, the Trump administration moved forward with its plans to reduce the food stamp rolls with the U.S. Department of Agriculture tightening work requirements. The change is expected to remove 688,000 individuals (so-called “work eligible adults” who don’t hold steady employment but qualified for work exemptions in the past) from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on April 1 of next year. In Maryland, that will translate into about 30,000 people losing benefits, according to Maryland Hunger Solutions. But that’s just the start. Further restrictions on SNAP planned by the administration are expected to cut a total of about 3 million Americans from the program including 80,000 Marylanders.
The justification for these reductions? The claim that food stamp eligibility is somehow become a “way of life” for certain individuals and that millions need to be weaned from government dependency. But this perception — not terribly far from the mythic “welfare queen” of the Ronald Reagan era that helped Republicans stoke resentment of the poor — is of steak and shellfish on the taxpayer’s dime, a life of leisure and able-bodied adults with a total disinterest in holding a job. That’s not the reality of SNAP, where the average individual benefit is $126 per month. By comparison, the USDA estimates that the average Americans spends $262 per month on groceries to feed one.
And these individuals who are getting dropped for not working a sufficient number of hours? States provided an exemption in the past because they lived in areas where there was a lack of jobs. The new rules mean unemployment will have to be at least 6% to qualify for an exemption, a standard that, under the October unemployment report, all Maryland subdivisions fall below, including Maryland’s highest per capita jobless region, the lower Eastern Shore.
We could go on and on about the cruelty of this, particularly around the holiday season, a time of year normally measured by our ability to help each other, not cause needless suffering. We would note, for example, that many of these people losing SNAP benefits receive no other assistance from government. Or how Democrats and Republicans alike have supported exemptions in the past. No fewer than 36 states currently use them in high unemployment areas. But would it do any good? Some people have hardened their hearts to such circumstances and believe passionately, and without evidence, that hunger in America is a figment of the imagination — even as the USDA itself estimates there are more than 14.3 million food insecure households in the U.S. (meaning households sometimes uncertain where their next meal is coming from because they lack the necessary resources to feed themselves and their loved ones).
So instead we would offer this practical argument: What good does wrecking havoc on a proven social safety net actually do? What we have learned in Baltimore, long before the Freddie Gray unrest but surely reinforced by it, is that providing insufficient aid — call it the means to help themselves or call it a lifeline — to individuals living in areas of concentrated poverty does not lead to Horatio Algier success stories, it leads to more concentrated poverty. And that, in turn, leads to much more costly government intervention in the form of violent crime, drug use and dealing, police, prosecution and prison, not to mention higher health care costs and schools having to deal with traumatized students ill-prepared to learn. All that costs much more than $126 per month.
Thus, taking food out of people’s mouths isn’t just cruel and immoral, it’s also highly impractical and ultimately costly to taxpayers. Handing out luxuries like tax cuts to the rich would be one thing, handing out something as vital as food in a way that allows people to keep their dignity should be the absolute last government program ever cut. You want people to escape poverty? Don’t take away their food, make sure they have the means to better themselves — chiefly a job, along with the education, transportation and housing necessary to qualify for it. The SNAP rolls will naturally decline as the employment outlook improves. That’s not a theory. Program enrollment has already shrunk about 3.9 million over the last several years. But then, putting the squeeze on food stamps isn’t about pragmatism or saving money, it’s about delighting the hard-right wing of the Republican Party and their assumptions about the “lazy” downtrodden.