The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, provides crucial financial aid to nearly 40 million impoverished Americans.
The subsidy comes with strings attached, however, including the requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents work or train for employment at least part time if jobs are reasonably easy to find.
Recently, the Trump administration proposed to make that work requirement considerably more stringent. If it has its way, it will make life more miserable for some of the poorest Americans, many of whom are working already in low-paying, entry-level jobs.
Why the change? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the goal is to move able-bodied SNAP recipients to self-sufficiency “through the dignity of work.” “The rule is meant to restore the system to what it was meant to be: assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency,” the USDA said.
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The department may claim a noble purpose, but the details of the proposal argue otherwise. For starters, it’s hard to see what problem the administration is trying to solve, either here or in the similar attacks it’s made on Medicaid and other safety-net programs. As of the end of September, 38.6 million Americans were receiving food stamps, costing taxpayers $5.8 billion.
That’s significantly fewer than the 43.7 million people who were on food stamps two years ago, and way, way down from the post-recession peak of nearly 48 million in 2013.
What’s more, the overwhelming majority of recipients are not able-bodied, working-age adults; rather, most recipients are children. So the food stamp rolls are shrinking, and most of the benefits by far are going to people who aren’t supposed to be in the workforce. By the USDA’s own admission, only 6 percent of the people on food stamps were able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who were not working.
And “lifelong dependency” is hyperbole, at least where able-bodied adults are concerned. Citing research by the USDA itself, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the people who stay on food stamps the longest “tend to be elderly individuals and people with disabilities.”
Under federal law, states are allowed to waive the work requirement if their unemployment rate is at least 10 percent or if jobs are “insufficient.”
The new Trump administration proposal, however, would forbid states to waive the work requirement unless their unemployment rate had been at least 20 percent higher than the national average and at least 7 percent for the previous two years.
If experience is any guide, the change is likely to knock thousands of poor working people off of food stamps simply because they will fail to keep up with the paperwork newly required to maintain eligibility; others will undoubtedly fall off the rolls because they can’t find jobs.
Research shows that most able-bodied adults on the food-stamp rolls held jobs in the year before or after the month they started receiving assistance. This is a low-income population that slips in and out of work, often because the jobs they can hold come and go.
The issue here isn’t a lack of appreciation for the “dignity of work,” it’s a need for better skills and better jobs.
The path out of poverty is grueling enough without help to put food on the table.
This longer version of this editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.