Who would announce a cut to food assistance for some of the poorest Americans just weeks before Christmas? That would be President Donald Trump, whose administration earlier this month put the final touches on a rule that could essentially end food benefits for an estimated 30,000 Minnesotans and just under 700,000 nationwide.
Those affected are, in a bureaucratic phrase calculated to elicit zero sympathy, “able-bodied adults without dependents.” Why can’t someone who is “able-bodied” and childless support themselves? Food-shelf operators, social workers and charities can name many reasons. Colleen Moriarty, of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, says that in this state people in need often live in rural counties where, even in the so-called full-employment economy, steady work can be hard to come by.
Some who need help have histories that make them less than desirable workers. Others suffer from depression or other ailments that may not rise to the level of being officially declared unfit to work. Studies have shown these are individuals who tend to live alone, in deep poverty. To qualify for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) as an individual, gross monthly income has to be less than $340 a week. “Many of them try, they just can’t make enough to support themselves,” Moriarty said.
Until now, states have been able to make allowances for counties where unemployment is higher, allowing more to qualify for food help. The new rule would restrict that ability. Without a waiver, adults without children who fail to work at least 20 hours a week or train for that long would qualify for just three months of food assistance over three years.
“It’s so draconian,” Moriarty said. “It’s such a blow to the people who already have the most trouble finding work.”
SNAP benefits are parsimonious to begin with, especially so for childless adults. In fiscal 2020, the average benefit for that group will be $134 a month. On your next shopping trip, see how far you could stretch $32.50 for weekly groceries.
What’s even worse than the callousness of this move is the fact that it deliberately subverts a hard-won bipartisan accord on SNAP benefits that went through Congress as part of the 2018 farm bill.
“That’s particularly discouraging,” Moriarty said. She noted that U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who heads the House Agriculture Committee, worked hard to build bipartisan support for the farm bill that rejected the attempts to slash nutrition benefits. “We all worked to build consensus, pass reasonable legislation and yet it’s being completely undone by this administration,” she said.
In a particularly Orwellian bit of spin, the USDA said the rule change was aimed at moving more individuals “toward self-sufficiency and into employment.” In fact, the new rule will do nothing of the sort. It is a punitive measure that will not help individuals in their search for work, just make them hungrier while they look.
How much will the federal government save? About $1 billion a year by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s estimate. But of course, that’s not really a savings. The cost of caring for these individuals, of ensuring that they don’t starve, will simply fall to overburdened charities and food shelves, and county and state programs. And there are other cuts in the offing that would affect families on SNAP.
This season, as you contemplate charitable giving, consider telling your lawmakers that these cuts should be restored.