A new rule from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to take away food assistance from at least 750,000 people if they cannot meet harsh new work reporting requirements. The rule would significantly weaken the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an anti-hunger program that helps one in eight Americans put food on the table. SNAP is highly successful, helps boost long-term health outcomes, and is beneficial for local economies—all while providing just $1.40 per person per meal. Let’s be clear: This rule will increase hunger, not employment.
The USDA’s new rule is the most recent in a long line of attempts to weaken foundational programs that support basic standards of living in favor of helping the wealthy. The rule comes as the Trump Administration calls for $220 billion in budget cuts to SNAP and as we mark the one-year anniversary of the GOP’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, which gave more in tax breaks to the top 1 percent than the entire SNAP program costs. And SNAP already has severe time limits in place: In 2016, about half a million participants lost food assistance because they failed to meet a work time limit. Instead of creating additional, counterproductive barriers for low-income families and communities, policy experts should be finding ways to strengthen this essential program, including by removing existing time limits.
As we outlined in a recent GCPI report, overwhelming evidence shows that taking away food and other basic supports will hurt working people rather than increase employment or earnings. Such proposals ignore the realities of today’s low-wage labor market and their intersection with systemic barriers facing un- and underemployed Americans—including racial discrimination, mass criminalization and mass incarceration, and chronic or serious health conditions, such as disability or experiences with past trauma or violence.
Taking away SNAP from people who don’t meet a cruel work requirement would disproportionately harm people of color, particularly women of color. Racial discrimination and bias from public agencies and employers present significant barriers for individuals in the labor market, particularly for African-American and Latino workers. Studies on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to families, found states with larger African-American populations are more likely to impose harsh work requirements, and African-American and Latina women are more likely to be handed a benefit sanction by their caseworker than white women. This new SNAP rule is likely to exacerbate the effects of persistent discrimination.
The labor market is also stacked against people who have been involved in the criminal justice (CJ) system, who are disproportionately people of color. People with CJ involvement are more likely to experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment, poor health conditions, and employer discrimination that is only compounded by racial discrimination. In Ohio, a study of SNAP enrollees found that one-third of those who could not document enough work hours each month had felony convictions. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and 95 percent of people who enter prison leave. It’s in our collective best interest to remove barriers to work rather than add punitive measures that leave people hungry.
For survivors of trauma or violence, SNAP provides stability during difficult times. Escaping an abusive relationship can mean a loss of financial stability, and many survivors and their children rely on SNAP for financial independence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that strengthening economic support and stability is key to stopping domestic or intimate partner violence (DV/IPV), but the new rule could push financial security further out of reach for survivors. Further, people who have experienced sexual trauma and violence as children have been found to experience lower work performance, resulting in financial problems as adults. SNAP can offer financial stability to survivors who need help finding their footing in an unwelcoming labor market.
Proponents of creating new barriers to SNAP and similar programs fundamentally misunderstand the obstacles faced by working people and those seeking work. Creating a future where everyone in the U.S. can thrive includes focusing on removing barriers to employment and earnings—not creating new ones. Policymakers can do this by strengthening foundational programs like SNAP and Medicaid, boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising the minimum wage, expanding child care assistance, and reforming the criminal justice system. If we really want to help people find and keep work, making people hungrier isn’t the solution.