SNAP Cuts in a Land of Constraint


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“Ma’am, you don’t qualify for food stamps because you’re not working 20 hours a week. You have to work at least 20 hours a week to even be eligible to apply.”

When the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance representative explained to me that I couldn’t receive assistance my gut clenched with anxiety. After weeks of crunching numbers trying to determine how to cover all my expenses as a full-time graduate student, the reality of the inflexible requirements of the public assistance system hit hard. Already working 5-7 hours a week amidst balancing a full course load, working 15 additional hours weekly to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance wasn’t feasible.

My experience of rejection of SNAP based on work requirements isn’t unique to me or to Massachusetts guidelines. As part of the 1996 welfare reform under President Clinton, policy makers implemented a time limit and a work requirement of the then Food Stamp program to decrease people’s dependency on the government. This measure was intended to increase the independence and self-sufficiency of recipients. That restriction was lifted as the Great Recession drove many Americans into the depths of poverty. For several years, the federal government increased spending in public assistance programs, like SNAP, to ensure the stability of Americans across the country. Now, as the economy grows again and unemployment rates fall, Congress seeks to re-implement the time restriction and work requirements on SNAP.

By the end of this month, up to 1 million Americans will lose their SNAP dollars as 22 states across the country carry out the re-implementation of the federally mandated SNAP time limit and work requirement. Thousands of others will be restricted from accessing SNAP at all. By April of this year, a total of 40 states will require that anyone aged 18-49 who does not have a child and is able-bodied must work a minimum of 20 hours per week in order to qualify for SNAP funds. Further, households are limited to three months of assistance in a 36-month period, regardless of employment status

National Public Radio explains that states and regions can waive the federal restrictions if they prove that their unemployment rate is greater than 10%, if there is a surplus of workers, or if the state or regional unemployment rate has been 20% higher than the national average for two consecutive years. Some states, like Mississippi and regions of North Carolina, are eligible for the waiver but choose not to apply.

Republican Representative Mike Conway from Texas expressed his agreement with federal decisions in a Huffington Post article, stating, “Though there have been dramatic increases in government spending on SNAP and related programs, these numbers are a strong indication that additional resources have simply produced stagnant results, and by in large haven’t helped families improve their overall stability.”

Certainly, tremendous sums of money have been invested in public assistance programs. Despite government funding, the number of U.S. households reporting food insecurity has increased from 11.1% in 2007 to 14% in 2014. With significant government financial investment, some people wonder why that percentage rose and consider time limits and work requirements as a way to curb government spending.

However, as we dig deeper we uncover the comorbid human conditions and environmental constraints that engender the complexities of poverty cycles. Working a minimum of 20 hours weekly isn’t so simple. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that only half of the people affected by the impending cuts have a high school diploma or GED. One-fourth have not completed high school. Many do not have a license and live in food deserts 1.8 miles from their nearest super market. To garner anything more than “stagnant results”, policy makers must take these other barriers into account by considering the availability and location of jobs, access to computers to apply for jobs, and transportation costs. What results when Representative Conway and other policy makers ignore such complexity are several unintended consequences that knock people further into the depths of poverty and further away from the goal of self-sufficiency.

A more fitting proposal would be to align SNAP eligibility with other assistance programs – recipients must demonstrate an active attempt to find work – while decreasing funding on a sliding scale that considers other life costs such as transportation and education. Doing so will gradually decrease government spending, grant people the flexibility they need to survive, and allow more households to be active participants in the market in the meantime.

Cutting the assistance of those most in need does little to help our nation. To help families gain financial stability, we must provide them the resources they need to survive. Without taking into account the circumstances of those requesting assistance is to ignore the objective of SNAP itself.

By: Anna Mahathey
M.P.P./M.A. in Women and Gender Studies ’17
Poverty Alleviation Concentrator


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