Food stamps are about preventing hunger, not getting a job

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this Friday, March 17, 2017, file photo, a sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer's market in Topsham, Maine.
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The program is not about employment. There are other government programs to encourage and help low-income Americans participate in the workforce.
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as its name suggests, is about making sure Americans have enough nutritious food to meet basic needs. Ditto with the program’s nickname: Food Stamps are about ensuring access to food.

The program is not about employment. There are other government programs to encourage and help low-income Americans participate in the workforce.

This has not stopped the Trump administration, and Republican lawmakers, from trying to tie government benefits to having a job. Their most recent effort involves tightening work requirements in the SNAP program, a proposal rejected by Congress.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department, which administers the program, said it has finalized rules that would essentially eliminate a provision that allowed states to waive work requirements during periods of high unemployment. The new rule, which is set to go into effect in April, would set 6 percent as the minimum unemployment in a county for a state to be allowed to waive the work requirements.

The unemployment rate nationally has not been that high since 2013, although some counties have had unemployment rates above 6 percent since then.

Currently, adults who are termed able-bodied and have no dependents can receive SNAP benefits for up to three months during a three-year period. The benefits can last longer if they show they are working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours or more per month. States can waive these requirements if unemployment is above 2.5 percent.

The most recent nationwide unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 6 million people are unemployed, the bureau reported.

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters during a conference call Wednesday to announce the finalization of the rule change, which has been proposed in February.

“This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps … moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency,” Perdue said, according to The Washington Post.

That is not the intent of the SNAP program. It is about providing food security, not requiring employment or self-sufficiency.

Here’s what the department’s own webpage says about the program: “Our mission is to increase food security and reduce hunger by providing children and low-income people access to food, a healthful diet and nutrition education in a way that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.”

Like former Gov. Paul LePage in Maine, Purdue is pretending that taking benefits away from people suddenly makes them less hungry or less poor. That’s not how it works.

Nearly 12 percent of U.S. households are considered food insecure, which means that they had difficulty acquiring enough food. More than 7 percent have low food security, meaning they eat less or rely on food assistance. Both numbers have declined slightly in recent years, but all politicians should be outraged that millions of Americans go hungry each day.

Maine’s prevalence of food insecurity is above the national average and the highest in New England.

Beyond helping American avoid food insecurity, SNAP keeps millions of families out of poverty. According to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the program kept an average of 3.5 million Americans from falling below the poverty line from 2016 to 2018.

“SNAP has consistently been among the most impactful noncash transfer,” the bureau said. It ranked SNAP as the third most effective program for lifting Americans out of poverty, behind Social Security and refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

With the Trump administration rule change, many Americans will be hungrier and poorer. Congress should again step in to avoid this unnecessary outcome.

 



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