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Stricter Work Rules for SNAP Recipients Won’t Accomplish Goal

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The Trump administration recently announced new rules that will tighten restrictions on who can receive SNAP benefits, or food stamps. The new restrictions curb the ability of states to pursue work requirement waivers for recipients who live in primarily rural areas with high unemployment rates. This means some current recipients may no longer be eligible for SNAP.

These policies target the most vulnerable Americans and ignore the long-term, negative effects for short-term cost cutting and political gain. Stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients are not the way to help people “lift themselves out of pervasive poverty.”

SNAP benefits, which can be used to purchase groceries, are part of our nation’s safety-net system for low-income individuals and families. The average monthly SNAP benefits for one person per month in 2018 was $126. Almost 90 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with a child, an older adult or a person with a disability.

The new restrictions apply mostly to the remaining 10 percent of SNAP recipients, defined as “able-bodied adults without dependents” – an estimated 775,000 individuals. The target group is small but particularly vulnerable, as individuals’ average annual income is about $4,000.

Placing work requirements on SNAP recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents is not new: They already can receive only three months of benefits every three years, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week. Up until now, however, states have been able to apply for waivers to this restriction in order to provide SNAP benefits to this specific group of people in areas with very high unemployment rates. Waivers are currently in place for 36 states and counties — about half of the United States.

Trump has said that a strong economy and low unemployment rates should mean that everyone has the ability to work. But he is missing the fact that the strong economy has not impacted everyone equally.

There is still a large percentage of Americans who live in deep poverty, earning less than $6,000 per year. There are many barriers for these individuals to finding and maintaining consistent employment, including chronic illness that doesn’t meet disability guidelines, criminal histories, homelessness and addiction. There are also other barriers such as lack of access to child care, transportation and educational opportunities.

Deep poverty affects people of color: 12.6 percent of blacks and 10.1 percent of Hispanics live on less than $6,000 per year compared with 4.3 percent of whites. Unemployment is also higher for people of color: In December 2017, the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent for Hispanics and 6.8 for blacks compared with 3.7 percent for whites.

In December, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote, “A central theme of the Trump administration has been to expand prosperity for all Americans, which includes helping people lift themselves out of pervasive poverty.” In reality, though, the added work requirements are more likely to bring results similar to the welfare reform of the 1990s: SNAP enrollment may decrease, but the number of people in deep poverty may actually increase.

Those who are no longer eligible for SNAP benefits and unable to sustain consistent employment will need to turn to other resources such as food banks. States such as Texas, California, Florida and New York, which have the largest numbers of recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents, will see these alternative resources stretched to the maximum.

Funding and implementing effective job-training and education programs is a better start. Combining job training with programs to address essential needs such as affordable housing, and the consistently higher rates of unemployment and poverty for people of color could make even a bigger impact.

Increasing the minimum wage would also contribute to lowering the number of low-income, working Americans who currently rely on SNAP to achieve food security for their families.

The Trump administration needs to take a step back from the new rules and examine the dynamics of poverty and make informed decisions. That is, unless the goal of the Trump administration is to reduce the number of people eligible for SNAP benefits regardless of the ability of recipients to find and hold consistent employment. If that’s the goal, the administration is literally taking the food out of the mouths of our most vulnerable.

Cossy Hough is a clinical associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman and the San Antonio Express News.

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