By Ann Suk
Nutrition policy has been in the news lately regarding upcoming changes issued by the Trump administration to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP benefits 34 million people in the US (2019 data), and has been found to reduce food insecurity. Changes will narrow eligibility requirements for the program and are expected to eliminate SNAP dollars for nearly 700,000 people who currently qualify.
Current SNAP requirements stipulate that able-bodied adults with no dependents can receive SNAP benefits for only three months; after this time they must show that they are working for at least 20 hours a week. Fortunately, though, states can waive this requirement for people living in areas with high unemployment – under current rules. Because of this waiver, people who live in areas with few available jobs can still continue to benefit from SNAP and to contribute to the local economy through the use of SNAP dollars. The new rule, though, would make it harder for states to waive this requirement, effectively taking away benefits from many.
So what claims is the administration making to justify these cuts? Is there any evidence to support introducing work requirements for benefits eligibility? And what are the implications of this new rule?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program, claims that the new restriction will incentivize people to find employment. USDA head Sonny Perdue stated in a press release last December that: “We need everyone who can work, to work” and emphasized that the changes aimed to promote dignity. Existing evidence, though, questions the effectiveness of making benefits contingent on work. When a similar policy restricted the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, research on the impacts found that tying benefits to work requirements often failed to generate lasting gains in employment – and instead made it more difficult for individuals to feed themselves.
With regard to SNAP specifically, recent research by Dr. Maggie Dickinson, assistant professor at City University of New York’s Guttman Community College, highlights how removing people who are unemployed from SNAP impacts not only those individuals but also their family and social networks. Her qualitative work in NYC illustrates how people pool resources – including SNAP benefits – to care for others in their networks. For instance, people often use SNAP benefits to support children who do not live with them, or to contribute to household groceries while out of work and living with friends or relatives. Dickinson has also pointed out how the social safety net in the US functions to subsidize low-income workers – enabling employers to pay below-subsistence wages – while excluding the unemployed.
Connected to this issue of losing SNAP eligibility is the question of whether current benefits are even adequate. For instance, a study that focused on the effects of the 2013 SNAP benefit cut found that SNAP households experienced a 7.6% increase in food insecurity, and a 14% increase in very low food security. Moreover, after the benefit reductions, households headed by single mothers, people with lower education levels, or unemployed people experienced the greatest increase in food insecurity. In other words, the cuts rendered vulnerable SNAP recipients even more vulnerable. Looking more broadly at nutrition assistance programming, research shows that families receiving nutrition assistance tend to have inflexible household budgets. Other studies show that current benefit amounts are simply inadequate for ensuring food security for the entire month, not to mention supporting a healthy diet.
The evidence points toward the real purpose and implications of the new rule – since it does not promote self-sufficiency as the administration claims, and instead excludes certain low-income groups while reinforcing existing inequities.
Peer Edited by Sara Bernate; Feedback from Deanna Wung