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Lawmakers Who Used Food Stamps Ask Trump Not To Cut Program

We Accept Food Stamps sign, location unknown. 2010. (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

“The USDA’s own data shows that the rates of fraud and abuse in the SNAP program are quite low. The truth is that SNAP is a very effective government program.  It serves the people who need assistance the most, it helps people put food on their tables and we know from research that it reduces food insecurity, improves health outcomes and reduces health care costs.”

Nine U.S. lawmakers sent the president a letter asking him to forgo further cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) after the Trump Administration proposed $15 billion in cuts to the $71 billion program in its budget proposal this week. The newest cuts would add to tightened eligibility requirements the administration finalized for the program in December, which the Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects will end benefits for nearly 700,000 people.

The White House argues that low unemployment has reduced public need for the program, but critics argue that wages for many recipients are too low to cover living expenses and that the program remains essential for helping Americans escape poverty.

The average monthly benefit for SNAP recipients is $134.85 per individual or around $1.50 per meal. Around 36 million people currently receive monthly food stamp benefits.

“We are writing today on behalf of the over 36 million American families who currently depend on SNAP, like ours once did, to make ends meet and help the next generation achieve upward mobility,” the lawmakers wrote.

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute think tank, spoke to Citizen Truth in an email exchange about the common misconceptions surrounding SNAP.

“People turn to programs like SNAP when they lack jobs or enough hours, or are experiencing health challenges that may interfere with stable employment.  The majority of people on SNAP who can work, do work, but that work can be unstable and intermittent,” Waxman told Citizen Truth.

Despite low unemployment, millions of employed Americans remain under the official poverty line and almost half of jobs are low wage.

“That reflects the nature of the low-wage labor market,” Ms. Waxman continued. “Even in a stronger economy, we do not see the growth of wages and the availability of sufficient hours to lift many lower-level workers from poverty. And some of the fastest growing occupations for people with less educational attainment, such as home care workers and food service personnel, continue to pay near-poverty wages and rarely come with benefits people need to achieve self sufficiency.”

Waxman argues that the program is structured to support work, and says that instating the administration’s proposal would hurt working Americans without boosting employment.

“SNAP in particular is designed to encourage and support work,” Ms. Waxman told Citizen Truth. “The design of the benefit minimizes what we call a ‘benefit cliff’ – the sudden drop-off of benefits when people earn a bit more income. SNAP benefits taper off as income climbs, and a part of people’s earnings are not calculated in the eligibility for benefits, to avoid penalizing people for working and earning income.”

Rebecca Vallas of the Center For American Progress similarly described the problem with “benefit cliffs” when cuts were proposed in July. Vallas wrote that cliffs cause the sudden loss of benefits if wages go up even slightly past the defined boundary, which is currently set at 130% of the federal poverty limit (around $32,640 for a family of four). Vallas gave an example to illustrate her point:

“Take a worker earning $12.50/hr, with 2 kids. They’re at 125% of the federal poverty level, receiving about $161 in SNAP. Thanks to categorical eligibility, if the worker gets a 50-cent raise (+$86/mo), the family’s SNAP benefits go down by just $31, a net gain to the household of $55.

“But under Trump’s rule, if the same worker gets a 50-cent raise, the whole family loses SNAP overnight, because it puts them >130% FPL. They face a net *loss* of $75 per month. They’re *worse off* after getting a raise.”

Waxman has said that the cuts would harm working families with children who are fighting to climb out of poverty. Waxman refutes notions that the program enables abuse or dependency, as 44% of SNAP beneficiaries are children and another 21% are adults who live with children, making two-thirds of food stamp benefits going to families, according to the Center for American Progress.

“The narrative around ‘dependency’ is as old as this country – even older, because we inherited these attitudes from the time of the English poor laws. That narrative takes our eyes away from what needs to be fixed about work.  It’s easier to blame the individual who is struggling with food insecurity, than to have a serious conversation about how our economic system needs to be improved,” Waxman told Citizen Truth.

Waxman argues that the program’s ability to help alleviate poverty makes it a boost to the broader economy rather a drain.

“The USDA’s own data shows that the rates of fraud and abuse in the SNAP program are quite low. The truth is that SNAP is a very effective government program.  It serves the people who need assistance the most, it helps people put food on their tables and we know from research that it reduces food insecurity, improves health outcomes and reduces health care costs.

“In addition, SNAP benefits support local economies – when people redeem their SNAP benefits, those dollars are going to pay the wages of people who work in grocery stores, to farmers and to other producers. SNAP actually ends up being a good investment, rather than the drain that some people characterize it as.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a staff writer and assistant editor at Citizen Truth.

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