For Sarah Buck, finding food is a puzzle of sorts — “a maze for your own survival.”
A few trips to Market Basket eat up her $250 allotment from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at the start of the month, and Buck scrounges together the rest of her meals. She visits the Saturday farmers market to reap the benefits of the state Healthy Incentives Program and plants vegetables in her Fairhaven backyard. Food pantries or “meals on wheels” services fill in the gaps.
“I can barely figure out what I can afford and where,” said Buck, 53. “But no matter which path you take, how much you budget and save and coupon, it is almost never enough.”
Now the agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling in Washington — passed in the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday — could make it even more difficult for Buck and thousands of other low-income Massachusetts residents like her to stay fed.
That’s because the deal alters several key social safety net programs that buoy the poorest residents. The changes complicate cash assistance for low-income families through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program, trim funding for housing assistance and child care, and end the three-year pause on student loan payments by August.
One of the biggest alterations increases work requirements for so-called able-bodied and childless recipients of SNAP — commonly referred to as food stamps — between the ages of 50 and 55.
Buck lives with a string of medical disabilities, including chronic fatigue, asthma, and lupus, so she may be exempt from the new SNAP rules. Yet she remembers how difficult it was to prove her health issues and qualify back in 2016 — something she fears now may happen now to more people in a similar position.
“You had to be completely destitute, completely broken, and very persistent to qualify beforehand,” she said. “Is this a sign it is going to get worse? Absolutely ridiculous.”
Lawmakers who championed the debt ceiling deal see it as a crucial compromise to avert an economic disaster, raising the US government debt limit in exchange for reining in government spending.
But several anti-poverty advocates questioned why the $136 billion of agreed-upon cuts had to come out of the pockets of the poorest Americans.
“All this is is a vehicle to punish low-income people,” said Jennifer Lemmerman, vice president of public policy at the Boston food assistance nonprofit Project Bread.
Americans are already grappling with high inflation, soaring levels of food insecurity, and the end of COVID-era programs that expanded SNAP and the child tax credit. The proposed changes to welfare will only lead to instability for even more low-income residents, said Victoria Negus, a policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
Currently, adults who are 49 and younger and do not have children must work or participate in a training program for at least 80 hours a month to receive food stamps for a prolonged period. The debt ceiling agreement would raise that age to 54.
These sorts of work requirements have long been popular among conservatives, and multiple lawmakers believe the debt ceiling deal did not go far enough in imposing them. In a tweet, Texas Representative Chip Roy, for example, called the additions “weak.”
“You cannot escape poverty without work,” Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a key negotiator of the bill, told CNN recently. “You just can’t. It’s got to be a part of the solution.”
But liberal economists question whether work requirements actually lift people out of poverty, or simply cut welfare rolls. Between 2016 and 2019, for example, existing SNAP mandates booted 35,000 Massachusetts residents off the program, according to an Urban Institute study of work rules in nine states. Today about 1 million people in Massachusetts receive an average of $188 per month through SNAP.
“Expanding the rules increases the number of people who can fall through the cracks, and we expect tens of thousands between ages 50 and 55 to lose their SNAP because of this,” Negus added. “Negotiating significant policy decisions by holding communities in need hostage is horrifying. It is death by a thousand paper cuts.”
Still, even as the proposal would tighten work requirements for some people, it would expand SNAP eligibility for others. On balance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the agreement would make an additional 78,000 Americans eligible for the program, because of expanded access for veterans, homeless people, and young adults transitioning out of the foster care system.
New work requirements for TANF recipients could also affect more than 39,000 households in Massachusetts — 68,000 children among them — who may be at risk of losing cash assistance due to more stringent standards for states’ work participation rates for households receiving benefits.
But for many people who qualify for that cash aid, working is unrealistic, said Naomi Meyer, senior attorney in the welfare law unit at Greater Boston Legal Services.
They live in extreme poverty — the maximum benefit for a family of three in Massachusetts is $783 a month — and are likely reliant on public transportation, laundromats, and other time-consuming necessities that can hinder a work schedule. They may be caring for children or family members with health problems, or have a major health issue themselves. Some are homeless, speak little English, or lack a high school degree.
“The idea that people are just comfortably living on this and don’t want to work is absurd,” Meyer said, adding this is “never, never, never” the case. “The stereotype that [recipients] are lazy is incredibly toxic. And it’s false.”
Meyer describes a client, a domestic violence survivor, who was homeless and on welfare but found a stable place to live with her children and was determined to become a nurse. But she also had to study English and grapple with PTSD. She enrolled in community college but couldn’t attend full time. Getting an associate degree would take years — and doesn’t count toward the 30 hours per week of work, education, or training she would need to qualify under federal rules.
“She’s one of the most hard-working, earnest people I know,” Meyer said. “She is a supermom striving to give her kids a bright future.”
Another hurdle: child care, especially for the mostly single parents who qualify for cash assistance. Not only is day care harder to come by than before the pandemic, it’s prohibitively expensive without a voucher. Juggling multiple children in multiple schools, afterschool programs, and any potential medical issues doesn’t leave much flexibility for work, said Robyn Riseberg, founder of Boston Community Pediatrics in the South End. Many families rely on grandparents to help, but they’re more likely to need to work to receive SNAP under the new rules.
“Oftentimes, you can’t get a child care voucher unless you’re working, but you can’t get a job if you don’t have child care,” said Riseberg, who noted that many of her patients receive public assistance. “Why are we relying on the poorest members of our community to help make up this difference?”
Buck of Fairhaven believes we shouldn’t.
She bleakly recalls the tidal wave of bureaucracy she dealt with on her applications seven years ago. Agencies that handle the subsidies turned her down for disability and SNAP even with several doctors’ notes in hand. Eventually, she enlisted a lawyer to see it through in court.
“People are already struggling. I was struggling,” she said. “And this is just taking even more away from them.”
Tal Kopan and Samantha Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.