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The Cruelty of Trump’s Attack on Food Stamps

Republicans have long made callous excuses for depriving poor Americans of this vital benefit. This administration has concocted a few of its own.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As a candidate, Donald Trump frequently promised to “fix” poverty. As president, he has continued to make a big show of concern for poor Americans. “We want to lift every American family out of poverty and into a future of hope and opportunity,” he said recently.

For the past few months, Trump has bragged—with a mixture of fact and fiction—about his great, amazing, incredible strides in accomplishing that goal. The “poverty index” is the “best number EVER,” he tweeted in June. (Not true.) “One million people have been lifted out of poverty and the poverty rate for African Americans has reached the lowest level ever recorded,” he said at a rally in May. (Both true.) “Nearly five million Americans have been lifted off food stamps,” he said in February. (Not true.)

Now, apparently, Trump believes his work on fighting poverty is complete. How else to explain his administration’s plan to tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? After all, the consequences of such a move are widely accepted: Roughly three million Americans would lose food stamps, while potentially hundreds of thousands of low-income students would lose their free school lunches. In short, Trump’s proposed rule changes would accomplish exactly the opposite of lifting families out of poverty; it would hold these families’ heads under water.

This is just the latest salvo in a decades-long, bipartisan effort to shred the social safety net. There remains an unyielding and erroneous assumption that people are poor by choice; in one 1985 survey, repeated in 2016, the percent of respondents saying “welfare benefits make people dependent and encourage them to stay poor” barely budged, going from 59 percent to 54 percent. This, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of poor people aren’t able-bodied adults electing not to work, but children, elderly, disabled, or full-time students or caregivers.

Every administration since Ronald Reagan’s, with the exception of Barack Obama’s, has made moves to reduce either the amount, type, or length of government support for people in poverty. Austerity is often used as an excuse, even when the proposed cuts are—as in today’s case—preceded by a major tax cut for the rich. Though more commonly a passion project of the Republican Party, the Democrats don’t have a sterling record: Perhaps no other legislation did more damage to the safety net than Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform.” Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, the authors of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, have shown that the number of Americans living on $2 a day or less has doubled since 1996, to more than 1.5 million.

But the Trump administration has attacked programs that benefit low-income Americans with a cruel gusto, from pushing Medicaid work requirements that end up costing people coverage (or fighting Medicaid expansion that ends up costing people’s lives) to striking overtime protection rules. The Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule changes to SNAP are a stark example because they take direct aim at children. (This is also a particularly Trumpian move; while the modern GOP has been complicit in most of these measures, they have legislatively resisted changes to SNAP.)

Two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to families with children, helping feed 20 million children every day. In most states, some of these recipients automatically qualify for food stamps because they receive other federal or state benefits; the states don’t check the recipients’ income or assets. This is called “categorical eligibility.” By eliminating it, and forcing means-testing for all SNAP recipients, the Department of Agriculture hopes to save $2.5 billion per year. “This proposal will save money and preserve the integrity of the program,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “Now people will have to qualify like everyone else.”

But Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has noted that eliminating categorical eligibility would create a sharp “benefits cliff,” such that many workers would actually be punished for getting a small raise at work because they’d immediately lose all of their SNAP benefits.

This rule change would also stop SNAP-eligible children from being automatically enrolled in the free school lunch program. Lower-income parents—often because they’re busy working multiple jobs for inadequate wages—are more likely not to know about or complete the process of applying for free or reduced-price school lunches. So tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students may go hungry during the school day, which is proven to have a damaging impact on their development: A study of children whose families receive SNAP benefits found there’s a significant drop in test scores the longer it’s been since their monthly SNAP deposit (i.e. the emptier the fridge is getting).

Kicking poor families off of SNAP doesn’t just put families at risk of going hungry; it increases their financial precariousness and levels of chronic stress. “Many programs that alleviate poverty—either directly, by providing income transfers, or indirectly, by providing food, housing, or medical care—have been shown to improve child well-being,” according to a recent landmark report by the National Academies of Sciences, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty. In fact, financial security is so tightly tied to child outcomes that the Centers for Disease Control lists “strengthen economic supports to families” as one of the five key strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect.

Conservatives have used all manner of claims to argue for cutting food stamps. Poor people are not working hard enough for the benefit. They’re not buying nutritious food. They’re not working because SNAP makes it “excessively easy to be non-productive,” as Mitch McConnell once put it. Now, the Trump administration is effectively arguing that millions of Americans simply don’t need food stamps anymore—and it’s even implying that these people are cheating taxpayers by receiving the benefit. It’s an appalling attack on the nation’s poor, but this is one instance where Trump, in historical terms, is lamentably unexceptional.