On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it had finalized a pending rule on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) that will affect nearly 700,000 able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). Areas with insufficient jobs will no longer be able to receive waivers for SNAP’s three-month time limit; ABAWDs will need to work, volunteer, or participate in job training for at least 80 hours a month to maintain eligibility, though the USDA is not providing supportive resources to help people get and keep jobs. In essence, this is a plan cruelly designed to terminate nutrition benefits.
This was the first of three SNAP-related rules introduced by the administration this year. If all three are finalized, they will have a cumulative effect of taking critical nutrition assistance from more than 3 million people.
The Trump administration’s attack on SNAP is nothing new; for decades, presidential administrations as well as members of Congress have been attempting to push people off SNAP, as seen under the Reagan administration, in 1990s welfare reform, and 2018’s farm bill. Selecting ABAWDs as a target was no coincidence; the policy is complicated and confusing, and though it has extremely high stakes for those affected, their voices are rarely heard.
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More than that, though, it’s a rule ripe for generating arguments about personal responsibility, hands up instead of hands out, and the “dignity of work.” This talking point made a return appearance in a press release from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) and an op-ed from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who has apparently never labored under the oppressive eyes of a ruthless algorithm at an Amazon warehouse, or defended himself against violent customers attacking him over a McDonald’s counter.
Conservative policymakers rely on language like this to drive home the idea that programs like SNAP, along with housing vouchers, Medicaid, and other elements of the social safety net, are handouts encouraging dependence rather than part of the social contract. In cuts to programs like these, the argument is that without stricter guidelines, poor people will “lazily” rely on benefits.
This framing can also be seen in incidents like a flashy campaign to highlight corporate tax dodging that stigmatized public benefits, rather than focusing on the need for corporations to pay not only taxes, but fair wages.
Some may defensively and correctly note that many people subject to work requirements are already working; in 75 percent of SNAP households with someone who is subject to existing work requirements, for example, someone has worked and/or will work within a year of receiving SNAP. Furthermore, some people considered able-bodied for the purposes of SNAP are in fact disabled.
It’s also important to be aware that the overall quality of jobs in the United States has gone down. In some cities, as many as 62 percent of workers are employed in “low-wage” jobs. 30 percent of low-wage workers live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line. And while Perdue commented on Twitter that “there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” getting a job in a nation with very low unemployment can actually be challenging, particularly for people with limited education or trade skills and obligations that may not show up on SNAP paperwork.
Ample evidence dating to the 1970s, when they were first implemented with then-food stamps, demonstrates work requirements are ineffective when it comes to meeting the stated goal of fostering independence; “work or starve,” as NY Mag put it, does not result in systemic change. While people subject to work requirements may experience a moderate uptick in employment, it fades over time, suggesting the effects are not lasting.
In some cases, people actually grew poorer over time; the current ABAWDs requirements have people working 80 hours a month, but accept volunteering and training programs in addition to work hours, which are not necessarily avenues to making enough money to survive. When participants are involved in voluntary, rather than mandatory, work and training programs, on the other hand, they’re much more likely to experience improvements.
Meanwhile, SNAP contributes about $1.70 to the economy for every dollar spent, and can help insulate workers from shocks like recession and job loss. These benefits are tremendous poverty-fighting tools. Making SNAP harder to get will make it difficult to get people onto SNAP quickly when unemployment starts to spike, hurting local economies in addition to making it hard for families to feed themselves.
SNAP is not the only program being targeted with work requirements. Multiple states have pushed for Medicaid work requirements, though thus far every one has backed down or faced a legal challenge. Programs such as SNAP and TANF, notably, already have work requirements, they just aren’t stringent enough in the eyes of some critics.
There’s no evidence to support punitive measures like these. They do not improve employment rates or fiscal independence. It’s important to acknowledge this, but not at the cost of the larger point: SNAP exists to bolster access to nutrition in the United States through a variety of means, whether allowing people to pick up what they need at the grocery store or certifying children for school lunch eligibility.
SNAP doesn’t just need to be defended; 62 percent of voters actually believe the extremely popular and effective program should be expanded. The United States should increase the availability and quality of benefits, and eliminate bizarre and restrictive limitations on the program, such as the ban on hot food. When people lack access to stoves or microwaves, refusing to allow them to buy hot foods is cruel, and undermines the USDA’s own goal to “do right and feed everyone.” And it should streamline SNAP benefits — something under attack with the USDA’s proposed rule around Standard Utility Allowances (SUAs), which would make it harder for people to get SNAP benefits when they need them.
The nation must change the way it talks about programs like SNAP; they aren’t something to be ashamed of, or evidence that someone has failed. They are instead evidence of a belief that everyone deserves access to a standard of living that meets their needs, freeing them to lead their best lives.