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Perpetuating the Cycle of Poverty

How the Republican Party’s proposals to reform the food stamp program will keep people down

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, keeps food in the pantries of 42 million Americans. But that number may soon shrink if House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway’s proposed farm bill becomes law. An analysis produced by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that about two million people will lose benefits if Congress enacts stringent new work requirements outlined by Conaway. Able-bodied SNAP recipients ages 18 to 59 with no children under the age of 6 would have to prove every month that they are working at least 20 hours a week or are enrolled in school, a requirement that adds hours of unpaid labor to an individual’s existing workload.

The bill, which Conaway will bring before the committee on April 18, also implements harsh penalties for families who make simple paperwork errors. The first error costs a household one year of aid. A second offense costs them a full 36 months of aid. The result would be more hungry families, on top of the 13.1 million households that already regularly experience food insecurity. This is, of course, an artificial scarcity; America is not in famine. Hunger is a political crisis.

SNAP is a vital program, but it is not as generous as it could be. “SNAP requires all working-age adults (with limited exceptions) to register for work and accept a job if offered,” CBPP’s analysts explained. “States can go further and impose very tough work requirements (up to 30 hours a week) and cut off benefits—including those for children in the household—to those who don’t comply.” The program also restricts individuals who are unemployed but able-bodied to three months’ worth of food stamps at a time.

Conaway’s bill would cut about $9 billion from the program in total, without providing much help for individuals who are looking for work. Despite its insistence on employment, it would only allot states $30 per individual for job training. Consider that against recent tax cuts that will cost an estimated $1.9 trillion over the next decade, and it’s clear that Republicans are trying to offset cuts for the wealthy and corporations by slashing SNAP and other spending programs. But the Republican justification for such policies contains an ideological component as well: a view of the poor that holds them responsible for their own poverty.

Work requirements for welfare, whether it’s food stamps or Medicaid, obscure the real, systemic difficulties people face when they’re looking for work. They also reinforce false narratives about the demographic characteristics of welfare recipients. Most households that receive SNAP are headed by employed adults, and include children. Conaway’s proposals don’t include a carve-out or loophole that exempts families from the consequences of these penalties. A single mother with three children between the ages of 6 and 18, for example, could make one mistake and cost her children food for a year.

And the effects ripple outward. Children whose families receive SNAP are automatically eligible to receive free school meals. If their parents lose SNAP, they lose one source of eligibility for that benefit. If parents don’t realize that there’s also an application process to qualify for free lunch, or make a paperwork error with that application, the consequences can be serious. Children can either rack up school lunch debt, as 76 percent of school-aged children do nationwide, or go hungry.

“These kinds of work requirements are a device to keep people off food stamps,” said Peter Temin, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of The Vanishing Middle Class. “They do this in two ways. One, if somebody is able-bodied or somebody thinks they’re able-bodied, you can throw them off of the list. And the other is that it creates another level of paperwork in order to get on the list. So certain people drop off, and it’s not necessarily correlated with whether they’re able bodied or whatever else they’re doing.”

There are also far-reaching consequences to inflicting food scarcity on children. Hunger in children correlates to poor educational outcomes, and places them at a permanent disadvantage in terms of achieving social mobility.

While it’s tempting to focus on the farm bill as an example of the Trump-era GOP’s real and unique disdain for the poor, previous presidential administrations also contributed to the problem. Work for welfare is now an old idea, rooted in the conviction that people become poor due to some personal failing, and are thus undeserving of government aid. It surfaces repeatedly in public life when politicians appeal to the magical thinking of small-government fiscal conservatism, or when they invoke the racialized specters of welfare queens and juvenile delinquents and spongers of all types. That message has been powerful enough to influence both parties.

Bill Clinton hacked into welfare with work requirements; deep poverty later increased. Ronald Reagan, who still reigns as a totem of a more civil conservativism, attacked benefits for the elderly, people with disabilities, and the poor, first by restricting welfare eligibility and then by adopting a policy that counted non-cash assistance as welfare, reducing the amount of federal assistance a person could receive. He had help from Democrats. Senator Ted Kennedy’s Jobs for Employable Dependent Individual bill, introduced in 1987, tied federal support for job training programs to reductions in state welfare rolls. The Heritage Foundation lauded Kennedy’s bill, saying it deserved “two cheers.”

The few SNAP recipients who don’t work tend to be disabled, meaning that the pool of able-bodied but unemployed individuals—the bete noire of small government fetishists everywhere—is actually rather small. Within this group, the number of able-bodied people who willfully choose not to work so they can receive welfare is likely small as well. “This notion that you should be working is a throwback to a kind of Victorian notion that an able-bodied person should be at work. If that person is not at work, that’s because they’re lazy. That’s the code word that people use,” Temin said.

In reality, unemployment doesn’t tell us much about the vigor of an individual’s job search. Parents can have resume gaps related to childcare needs; so can individuals charged with the care of an elderly or disabled family member. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough work available. “What we have in the United States, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, is a lot of people, especially in the center of the country, who are unemployed for the Keynesian reason that there’s no work,” Temin added.

Monopsony can be another factor in both limiting the number of jobs and depressing wages of jobs. Monopsony is defined by the Roosevelt Institute as buyer power among employers, such as when there is only employer in a region. “In general, monopsony power on the part of employers makes jobs scarce, whether employers’ power derives from concentration or some other source,” explained Marshall Steinbaum, a Roosevelt Institute fellow. “Work requirements increase labor supply, that’s the whole point of them. And if jobs are scarce then the excess of workers relative to jobs pushes down wages.” Employment, then, is no guarantee that a worker will earn enough to get off SNAP.

In proposing his reforms, Conaway has said, “Breaking this poverty cycle is pretty important.” But you can’t starve people out of cyclical poverty, and in any case, SNAP cuts aren’t designed to reduce poverty at all. They’re designed to sustain a fiction: that all you need to do to eliminate hunger in America is make people look for work.