James Murphy has spent a lot of time looking for a job—“in retail, manufacturing, anything”—but always ends up moving from gig to gig, unable to find something steady. He can’t afford permanent housing, so for months, he has slept outside or at a Brooklyn men’s shelter. “SNAP is my livelihood until I find a job,” he said, adding that he’s worked since he was 15 years old. “I grew up with food stamps. Now, I’m getting scared.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is part of the federal food safety net that helps low-income people and families buy groceries every month. It’s also a popular target when it comes to federal cuts: Last year, President Trump announced plans to tighten its eligibility requirements. Currently, “able-bodied” adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents—a demographic called “ABAWDs” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are restricted to three months of SNAP benefits in a 36-month period, unless they work at least 80 hours a month. But states have long been able to obtain waivers, and in its more than two decades on the books, every state except Delaware has sought one. But the Trump administration rule, slated to go into effect next month, will make it harder to do that, with significant implications for some of the country’s most needy SNAP recipients. In all, the rule will eliminate access for at least 700,000 Americans, cutting around 6.2 billion meals in the next decade.
Experts say the rule change will exacerbate hunger and do little to boost employment, as consensus on the efficacy of the program is well documented at this point. But in the context of the escalating coronavirus, the new policy will mean food-insecure Americans—from those like Murphy, who already depend on the fraying social safety net, to those now facing layoffs and struggling with health care costs—will face more barriers to food access exactly when they need it most.
The ABAWDs rule is among other cuts Trump has tried to impose on food safety benefits, but it’s the only one that has been finalized. After Congress rejected the new rule in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Trump administration bypassed the legislative process, enacting administrative changes that would cut certain unemployed SNAP applicants from the rolls. And although a coalition of attorneys general from 14 states, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., is suing the Agriculture Department over the move, the rule was finalized in December and is likely to take effect.
The administration, in a familiar argument, claims that the restriction will incentivize people to find jobs. In a press release, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “We need everyone who can work, to work,” and that the USDA “is committed to providing SNAP benefits to those who truly need them, but it must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward long-term self-sufficiency.”
But experts on food security reject that outright. “It’s the old argument that, if we cut people off of benefits, food stamps or Medicaid or cash assistance, they’ll go into the workplace, and that’s a path out of poverty,” said Maggie Dickinson, an anthropologist at Guttman Community College of the City University of New York, whose research focuses on the U.S. food safety net. “But in reality, that has never actually worked.” Jobs depend on a host of factors outside of a person’s control, including “the unemployment rate, childcare issues, lack of transport to available jobs, discrimination, a criminal record, or health care problems.” Although about half of SNAP recipients have a high-school diploma—Murphy, for example, dropped out but later earned his GED—a third have less, limiting their employment opportunities. “It’s not wrong to say that this is an intentional, concerted effort to undermine national food security through these administrative actions,” Nick Buess, associate director of mobilization and policy at Food Bank for New York City, said in an interview.
Conditioning benefits on work requirements has empirically had little impact on overall employment levels, according to Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Even when it has had an impact, people are still being employed for unstable hours, or at low wages, and there’s no evidence that this is a move toward self-sufficiency,” she said. “This is the reality of the low-wage labor market,” she added, noting that nation- or state-wide unemployment rates do not reflect geographic disparities or inequalities on racial lines: Unemployment among people of color is far higher than the national average.
Trump’s rule change is a modification of a Clinton-era welfare reform called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, passed in 1996, which imposed the initial ABAWDs restriction but allowed for waivers. At the time, the administration said the reform would “dramatically change the nation’s welfare system into one that requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance.”
Agriculture Department officials in this administration say the rule will exclusively affect adults without children, but Waxman says that’s not entirely accurate. “There’s a significant number of ABAWDs who have children, just not ones living in their home,” she explained. (SNAP defines a dependent as an individual you eat meals with, in your household.) For example, financial hardship, addiction, or abuse could lead a parent to send a child to live with a relative but still support them financially. “This rule will ripple through entire families,” she said.
Restrictions to SNAP will reverberate acutely in places like New York City, where low-income communities struggle to stay afloat as the cost of living continues to rise. SNAP allocations are based on national average grocery costs; groceries in Manhattan are more expensive than anywhere else in the country, and in Brooklyn, they’re 130 percent higher than the national median. In other words, a Brooklyn SNAP recipient like Murphy has far weaker purchasing power than someone in a similar situation in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, where one in three residents lives below the poverty line, gentrification and rising rent prices have exacerbated food insecurity. “In the four years that I’ve been here, the demand has increased drastically,” Sister Caroline Tweedy, the executive director of St. John’s Bread and Life, said, noting that since 2017, the number of meals served annually has jumped from 600,000 to over 900,000. “There’s a clear housing squeeze that means people must rely more on benefits like SNAP,” she added, when they’re forced to spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. “It boils down to the fact that there’s never enough for what we need.”
Although food banks and charities like St. John’s Bread and Life are working to fill the gap, emergency food providers still struggle to meet demand. SNAP provides 12 meals for every meal provided by Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit network of 200 food banks that provides services to over 46 million people. It is the second-largest charity by revenue in the U.S., according to Forbes.
The coronavirus pandemic raises the stakes. “Even on a normal day, emergency food providers struggle to cope with demand,” Buess, of the Food Bank for New York City, said. In the context of coronavirus, the rule change will “double down on the injury, pushing further people into food insecurity.” Although advocates have called for the administration to postpone the rule change, Trump said this week that the April implementation date won’t change.
When the move was finalized in December, the Trump administration argued that the strong economy and low unemployment would mitigate the impact of the rule change. But those numbers are shifting rapidly, as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy and spurs layoffs, which could translate to more Americans losing SNAP access. The outbreak has already burdened support systems: Volunteers power the majority of U.S. food banks, which are already beginning to face staffing shortages, as calls for social distancing and self-quarantine mount. And as shoppers empty supermarket shelves—in itself a luxury food-insecure Americans cannot afford—more people will turn to food banks. “Without things like guaranteed paid time off for a lot of low-wage workers or economic protections for people who will be asked to stay home from work, or can’t go to work, we can only imagine that there will be more pressure on the entire anti-hunger system,” Dickinson, of Guttman Community College, said, adding that SNAP applications could increase as well.
As April 1 looms, Murphy said he is trying to line up as many job interviews as he can, but “life interferes.” Earlier in the week we met, he missed the 10 p.m. shelter curfew by just half an hour, and the staff emptied his locker, where he kept his “driver’s license, social security papers, everything,” he said. “Now I have to start from scratch.”