On the heels of the thirty-two-day government shutdown, a proposed administrative rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) once again threatens food access for people who rely on the program for basic needs — this time for an estimated 755,000 people.
For households that qualify for SNAP, February, the shortest month of the year, was a long one. During government shutdown, 40 million Americans who participate in the program experienced as many as 60 days between the issuance of their February and March SNAP benefits. The shortages in household budgets meant that food banks across the country were inundated.
“355 households on February 19,” says Kelli Hess, operations director for the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center in Missoula, Montana. Hess notes that historically, February is a slower month for the pantry — families are receiving tax returns, and the short month means SNAP benefits don’t have to stretch as far. Prior to February 19, the local food pantry’s busiest day had served 240 families. “It was absolutely fallout from the shutdown. People can’t survive without paychecks. And they can’t survive without SNAP. Which is why this proposed rule change is so scary.”
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The rule change, proposed by the Trump administration, would limit states’ ability to waive work requirements during periods of high unemployment. Similar cuts to the program were rejected by the bipartisan Farm Bill passed by Congress in December 2018.
The administrative rule change would kick Miriam Bayer, a local academic, off SNAP. She is composed and deliberate in her statements as she explains the situation, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Missoula.
She holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Montana. During her undergraduate work at Washington Lee, which she attended on a full scholarship, she began her research on salamanders — work that earned her a first author publication before graduation. She spent a year researching in Brazil and was awarded a prestigious PhD candidacy at the University of Montana, a placement that allowed her to continue her education debt-free. However, a debilitating migraine condition forced her to pivot from the PhD candidacy to the master’s program. It also resulted in significant debt.
“Because of my medical condition, it took me longer to graduate, and I had a lot of medical bills. I would max out on my out-of-pocket every year seeking treatment. Between neurology, I was in a chronic pain program, physical therapy. That combined with the cut in income from switching from my PhD to master’s, I signed up for SNAP. I don’t remember when I started going to the food bank. And I took out student loans.” During school, Bayer’s SNAP access was not time-restrained because she was working as a teaching assistant. Upon graduation in December 2018, she was designated as an ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents), and the clock started ticking.
ABAWDs can only access SNAP for three months in a thirty-six month period, unless they can document 20.5 hours of work per week. Bayer, who has part-time employment as a tutor, works 14 hours per week, in addition to searching for employment in her field and working to publish her graduate research. She is in her fourth month on SNAP and is only able to continue receiving basic food assistance as a participant in a job seeker’s program through Missoula Job Services.
“I have to document 20.5 hours of qualifying activities per week. Because it’s not 20 hours per week, my job tutoring doesn’t count.” Bayer must document job-seeking activities and visit Job Services weekly to meet with her assigned jobs consultant.
“It is hard. It’s hard to spend time on my research papers, getting them out there, and working my job 14 hours per week, and applying to jobs, and trying to get additional tutoring jobs to make ends meet in the meantime so I can perhaps wait a little bit longer for a career position.”
“It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.” Sixty miles to the south in Victor, Montana, Barbara Willing is struggling to survive. At 64 years old, she says she will never be able to retire. “My story is one of someone who would have been okay, if not for the recession. I lost everything. It wiped me out.”
With decades of experience on her résumé ranging from office management and secretarial work to manufacturing, technical editing, and linguistics, Willing, who has her master’s degree in English, felt this time of hardship would be temporary. “But at my age, no one will hire you. Not for a job that earns a real wage.”
Living in a rural community away from many services makes things more challenging. “Driving to appointments, having to prove I need these programs. I don’t have the money for transportation, but there’s no way I could afford the rent in Missoula. I have to live out here.”
Willing has been on SNAP since October 2018. She describes the application process as demanding, but not impossible. She waited to apply for assistance until she was truly desperate, with zero dollars to her name and in danger of losing her housing.
“I don’t know how they expect people to make it. I know that as part of this waiver I’m on I can work for free, volunteering somewhere. But I don’t have the money to buy the gas!”
Barriers to employment differ widely from circumstance to circumstance. For Bayer, Willing, and the 755,000 people across the country in similar positions, access to basic needs like food makes the pursuit of career or gainful employment livable. After allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to go without paychecks during the government shutdown, this administration’s proposed rule is another example of tone-deaf policies that do not reflect the realities of America’s working class.
“The charitable food system is not prepared — is not capable — of picking up the need that this rule change would create. The shutdown was heinous, but it was temporary. This would be disastrous,” says Hess.
For people like Willing, “This rule change, it leaves me out in the cold.”
Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit handsoffSNAP.org.