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Changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Are Wrong

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Food Stamps

The Trump administration recently announced efforts to cut the number of people eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. New SNAP rules will remove approximately 700,000 people from the food stamp rolls in 2020. The rules focus on moving “able-bodied” adults off of food stamps and into employment.

In what seems to have become a pattern for the Trump administration, the rules are uninformed and discriminatory against vulnerable Texans.

The new SNAP rules limit the ability of states to pursue work requirement waivers for recipients who live in geographical areas with high unemployment rates. The argument is that this is the right time to strengthen work requirements for food stamp recipients because of the low unemployment rate. The assumption that low unemployment rates equal opportunities for all to be employed shows how uninformed this decision is regarding adults with low incomes in the U.S.

The Trump administration oversimplifies the considerations around who can be considered “able-bodied.” In most states, the Social Security Administration manages the complicated process that establishes who is a person with a disability, or not able-bodied. There are many barriers along the way to an approved application for disability benefits.

People who are unable to work according to the SNAP work requirements but who haven’t been officially found to be disabled may find themselves unable to qualify for SNAP and receive assistance with food.

Many of the barriers to being found disabled have greater impacts on people in vulnerable situations. People who are experiencing homelessness, for instance, often find gathering the needed documentation (including identification and medical records) and completing the long application process prohibitive and overwhelming. A disability applicant’s level of literacy can affect completion of a multistep application process toward benefits, and with gaps between literacy levels for whites and people of color, effects on people of color can be greater.

Being declared officially disabled or “not able-bodied” has other problems too. The average wait through the steps of the disability determination process is more than two years. This wait varies by state, with some states having large backlogs of applicants waiting for reviews or hearings. For instance, in 2019, Texas has more than 190,000 disability applications waiting for review, and California has over 200,000. In 2017, more than 10,000 people died while waiting to be approved for Social Security disability benefits. People may find themselves in a state of limbo in which they don’t qualify for SNAP because they haven’t been declared disabled and have to wait months for the Social Security Administration to make an official disability determination.

The new SNAP rules also make a judgment about the binary nature of disability or being able-bodied — either you are able-bodied or you are not. In reality, disability and chronic health conditions are much more nuanced. Many people qualify for Social Security disability benefits only after times of intermittently being able to work. A person with a chronic illness, for example, may be able to work part time for one month, not at all the next month and only a few hours a week in a third month. The SNAP system and other safety net systems aren’t set up to support people in these complex, but common, situations.

The Trump administration needs to step back and look at the system of safety net programs designed to support people in need before making changes to SNAP that impact so many of our most vulnerable. We could start by examining the backlog of disability claims with the Social Security Administration or looking at the rules and laws across the country that don’t take into consideration the complexities of people with chronic health conditions living with low incomes.

Kicking 700,000 people off SNAP benefits isn’t going to lead to more people working. Kicking 700,000 people off SNAP will lead to more people being hungry. Establishing work requirements for SNAP benefits plays well with those who believe that low unemployment rates equal opportunity for all. But equal opportunity for all is not the reality in our country.

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 San Antonio Express News, and the Austin American Statesman.

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