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Trump’s holiday gift: Cutting off help to the poor

Curbing federal food stamps will only exacerbate poverty, and cost Americans in other ways

A Brooklyn grocery store in New York City displays a sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits earlier this month.Scott Heins/Getty

Food stamps have long shored up American families when they have struggled to put dinner on the table. But recently it’s become the mantra of certain conservatives that federal food benefits via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, should be curtailed because they discourage work.

It is no surprise then that the Trump administration moved this month to finalize rules that would dramatically limit the poor’s access to SNAP food stamps. “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” said US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement.


Such conservative bromides ignore the evidence that SNAP beneficiaries by and large do not want to depend on government — difficult circumstances in their lives make it necessary — and that the program does not dissuade them from working. Depriving them of assistance will only exacerbate their poverty, and cost Americans in other ways.

The policy change, effective April 1, will oust nearly 700,000 people from food stamps nationwide and cut $5.5 billion in SNAP spending over five years. Approximately 35,000 of those affected live in Massachusetts. They are underemployed adults who have no children and are not known to be disabled — generally, a group of people not eligible for the benefit. But a longstanding waiver program has allowed the Commonwealth and other states to enroll such people in SNAP for more than three months in a three-year period if they live in localities with high unemployment or a tight job market. A recent study revealed that nationwide this group of childless individuals has received an average of $181 every month in SNAP benefits due to the state waivers.

The new rule will impose stricter criteria for issuing the state waivers. The government wants to move more able-bodied SNAP beneficiaries toward self-sufficiency and into employment. These waivers have long been seen as a “weakness” of the program — a loophole exploited by low-income individuals who simply don’t want to work at a time when there are 7 million job openings nationwide and the unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent.


But, “the Trump Administration is ignoring . . . the connection between geography and employment opportunities,” said Georgia Katsoulomitis, executive director of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, in a statement. “For example, this rule will disproportionately harm communities of color that are already struggling with economic instability and limited employment opportunities resulting from decades of explicit and implicit labor and housing discrimination.”

Requiring some recipients of SNAP benefits to work more is a dramatic change from longstanding policy, one that Congress itself rejected twice last year when it was proposed in Trump’s budget and in the farm bill — the latter by a bipartisan House vote of 330-83. The new rule also rests on a grave misconception about the food assistance program: SNAP is intended to address hunger and help people rise out of poverty, not to compel them to work.

Indeed, there is no evidence that the new SNAP rule will result in more people gaining steady jobs. Instead, research has shown that nondisabled, low-income individuals face a complex set of barriers to self-sufficiency that have nothing to do with whether they get food stamps. Some cycle in and out of low-paying jobs or can only get irregular hours, while others are noncustodial parents who support children or others in their extended family as grandparents or uncles.


What’s more, Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, executive director of Children’s HealthWatch at Boston Medical Center, warns that reducing SNAP benefits could increase health costs in the long run. “SNAP acts as important medicine across the lifespan,” she said. Food insecurity and hunger are highly correlated with negative health outcomes, such as depression, diabetes, and anemia. One study showed that participation in SNAP was associated with a reduction in health care expenditures by roughly $1,400 per person per year. In Massachusetts, health care costs related to food insecurity and hunger were estimated at $2.4 billion in 2016. Food, in this way, is like preventative medicine or primary care.

The move to curb the SNAP state waiver program is misguided, and ought to be reversed by the next president. Denying help getting food to the poor won’t do much to help them find full-time work. More likely, it will have a damaging impact on public health, which ultimately affects us all.