We were recently vacationing at a cabin on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. We take this weeklong annual pilgrimage to spend time with each other and soak up the last moments of summer. However, the trip this year was made somewhat daunting, because the only grocery store in town was damaged by a fire and has not reopened.
The town of Cook had become a food desert. So for one week, we experienced the anxiety of what it means to live without a place to easily shop for the daily necessities of coffee, bread, and juice. The family had plenty of cars and cash at our disposal, but it took 40 minutes to get to the closest grocery store, making it a trek.
Despite having a list in hand, we ran around the grocery store like headless chickens because we were afraid of forgetting something that we needed. We realized that having access to the food you need is what opens the door to opportunity. Without food you simply cannot take care of your children and pursue what is important to you.
President Donald Trump’s revised “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” policy is designed to increase food insecurity among the most vulnerable members of our society. He is targeting families waiting in limbo on an uncertain path to U.S. residency and citizenship. In this revised policy, when poor noncitizens — people who are in the country legally — use SNAP (food stamp) benefits it will count against them when they file for permanent residency and/or citizenship.
To be clear, rules are already extremely strict about which noncitizens can use SNAP benefits. Noncitizens must meet a variety of criteria and jump through strenuous bureaucratic hoops to access benefits. Only particular “qualified aliens” are eligible for SNAP and they must meet income eligibility requirements. In addition, they must also endure a long waiting period of five years or longer, have dependent children or meet work requirements, or they must be either blind, disabled and/or elderly. In other words, it often is not enough to be poor, one must also face another adversity in order to qualify for a basic human right.
According to the latest 2019 USDA Report, only 3% of SNAP recipients were noncitizens. In fact, SNAP benefits are grossly underutilized by eligible noncitizens precisely because of the fear that using these resources might hurt their immigration prospects. A June 2011 USDA report tries to quell these fears stating, “It is important for noncitizens to know they will not be deported, denied entry to the country, or denied permanent status because they apply for or receive SNAP benefits.”
However, on Oct. 15, this is all set to change. The revised policy will further reduce the number of noncitizens enrolling in SNAP benefits, bringing it to less than the already deflated 3%.
The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) response to this “chill effect” carries a familiar theme of we-don’t-care-and-we’re-doing-this-because-we-can. It uses the term “self-sufficiency” to justify the revised policy, even when all the evidence shows that noncitizens as a group are extremely self-sufficient and make enormous contributions to the economy. In fact, when asked to provide evidence to support this so-called lack of self-sufficiency rationale, the DHS responds: “DHS is under no obligation to demonstrate that all or most aliens in the United States are not self-sufficient.”
The only conclusion to draw from this policy revision is that public benefits have become the newest site for Trump’s ethno-nationalist agenda. Through this policy change, Trump frames SNAP benefits (among others) as an unnecessary public expense that should be rationed out to only the most worthy and deserving — with a false distinction being drawn between citizens and people on a legal path to citizenship.
So how should we respond to this political project? Rather than recoil at how many citizens and noncitizens receive public benefits such as SNAP, let’s celebrate how food shapes community and civic life and let’s create public policies that make food more accessible to everyone. Let’s respond with data and a better vision of the country, because making food dollars available supports retailers, families and communities and that’s just what this country needs now.
SNAP benefits account for a tiny proportion of government spending and have ripple effects far beyond program participants: they support big corporations like Walmart and Target that count on these dollars rolling in. They also support neighborhood corner grocery stores and farmers markets adding millions to the local economy.
Every shred of research shows that hungry children cannot learn, so this funding supports our schools, after school programs and child care centers where well-nourished children make the whole environment better.
Corporations collect billions of dollars of government subsidies, and homeowners happily deduct their home mortgage interest and collect this inducement to homeownership. Further, developers lobby vigorously for the expansion of housing benefits, trumpeting the jobs created by homebuilding and the quality of life brought by new homes. SNAP benefits should be no different.
Rather than diving into a defensive crouch, we should proactively fight for the expansion and increase of SNAP benefits. Every grocery store should be required to sign people up for SNAP benefits, public schools should enthusiastically help their students qualify and SNAP outreach workers should be as ubiquitous as real estate agents, gas stations and mortgage brokers.
Expanding and de-stigmatizing SNAP benefits serves the needs of those living in a rural food desert like Cook, Minn., as well as those living in central Minneapolis neighborhoods with high rates of food insecurity. Making more dollars for food available also helps those in booming suburbs where grocery stores are abundant but where hunger and food insecurity continue to be concerns.
So let’s not be distracted by Trump’s ethno-nationalist and irrational politics. Let’s remember that public benefits are precisely that — resources that benefit the public. And this is how we show our own “self- sufficiency.”
Rebecca de Souza is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Adam Pine is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Philosophy at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.