By Emily Cleath, Dawn Plummer and Diana Polson
In late July, President Donald Trump launched a frontal assault on the nation’s cornerstone food assistance program: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Trump’s Department of Agriculture announced their plan to terminate broad-based categorical eligibility, which would end states’ ability to let the food insecure who are just above the federal poverty line access food assistance, stripping states’ autonomy to determine their own economic needs.
In the context of rampant and growing income inequality, terminating categorical eligibility will yank food assistance from 3.1 million Americans with a demonstrated need — 16,000, for instance, in Allegheny County alone — cutting the number of vulnerable Americans currently receiving food stamps by 11 percent.
The change would have a huge impact on “near-poor” working families who rely on food stamps to help put food on the table.
A full 70 percent of households that would be booted off of SNAP in Pennsylvania include a senior or an individual with a disability. Nationally, a half million children would lose access to free school meals, despite well-documented evidence that hungry children can’t learn.
This proposed plan will take us backwards to a burdensome and costly process that imposes an asset test on all SNAP applicants, which discourages or penalizes recipients from saving.
An asset test requires people to jump through humiliating hoops just to receive the average support of $4/day for individuals and just $16/month for many seniors. Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services estimates that eliminating the asset test has saved the department $2.2 million a year in administrative costs.
A majority of Americans believe that food is a basic human right that the government should protect. Our nation’s food stamp program (SNAP), the roots of which began 80 years ago under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is still rightfully thought of as an entitlement.
The Department of Agriculture is pursuing this policy change despite widespread public opposition and Congress’ clear rejection of such a measure in the 2018 Farm Bill.
The relentless attacks on America’s poor occur at a time when rich corporations continue to be subsidized for the low wages they pay.
Take Walmart, for example.
The Waltons earn $4 million every hour while paying their workers poverty wages, forcing them to rely on food stamps and other public assistance programs (funded by taxpayers, including those same employees) in order to make ends meet.
In fact, Walmart/Sam’s Club workers are the largest group of employees receiving food stamps in Pennsylvania with 5,388 on the program as of September 2017. McDonalds came in second with 2,063 employees receiving SNAP benefits.
These aren’t exceptions; they signal what’s become the shameful norm. In the mid-1960s, CEO pay was about 20 times the average worker’s pay; by 2018, that ratio skyrocketed to 278 to 1.
This signals that something is desperately wrong in America. And the solution is clearly not to make the destitute even more so or to make life more difficult for the working poor.
The social safety net was meant to provide support for individuals who fell on hard times or who were unable to provide for themselves.
But with worker wages largely stagnant since the 1970s, low-wage workers increasingly rely on the safety net to close the gap between their pay and ever-rising costs of living.
The best way to cut reliance on food stamps is not to start dismantling the program but to require employers to pay a living wage.
According to MIT, a mother with two children would need to earn $28.06 to have a living wage in Pittsburgh – to afford housing, child care, food, health care costs and transportation. Under current SNAP policy, she would likely be ineligible for food stamps at anything above $17/hr.
Under Trump’s rule change, if that mother earns $14/hour and gets a raise to $15, she will have to forfeit the family’s food stamps (making her worse off financially after her raise) and her children’s free school meals. She’ll be one of the 3.1 million who “earn too much” to get food assistance, though still food insecure.
Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based advocacy group that looks for solutions to hunger and poverty, has been collecting comments from those — workers, seniors, and people with disabilities — who would be impacted by the SNAP rule change. One woman wrote:
As the gap between the rich and the poor grows and the middle disappears, our country loses any sense of the generosity, grace, and community that could make it a special place to live.
In protecting food stamps and tackling the real evil of inequality, we can restore what comprises the best of our nation. The greatness of America depends on it.
If you want to stop this rule from going into effect, as we do, there is still time to submit a public comment. Before September 23, submit your unique comment to the federal registry here.
Emily Cleath is Communications Coordinator at Just Harvest; Dawn Plummer is Director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council; Diana Polson is a Policy Analyst at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg.