Staff Columnist

New rules target food assistance

In Iowa, 70 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are children

Thanksgiving meals, including a turkey, stuffing, rolls and canned vegetables are packed and waiting for distribution to people in need as part of Operative Give Birds outside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids on Sunday November 17, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Thanksgiving meals, including a turkey, stuffing, rolls and canned vegetables are packed and waiting for distribution to people in need as part of Operative Give Birds outside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids on Sunday November 17, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The Trump administration is pursuing additional requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, to encourage self-sufficiency “through the dignity of work.”

“The rule is meant to restore the system to what it was meant to be: assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency,” USDA noted.

To be clear, SNAP provides crucial aid to nearly 40 million impoverished Americans, including nearly 400,000 Iowans — and already comes with strings attached, including a requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents in areas where jobs are reasonably easy to find work or train at least part time. The rule being discussed by Trump administration officials would make the existing requirement far more stringent, and make life far more miserable for already vulnerable residents, many of whom already are working in low-paying, entry-level jobs.

When scrutinizing details of this plan — as well as similar attacks made on Medicaid and other safety-net programs — no noble purpose emerges.

SNAP rolls already are shrinking, and most benefits go to people who aren’t supposed to be in the workforce — children. At the end of September, 38.6 million Americans received SNAP, which carried a price tag of $5.8 billion. That’s far fewer than the 43.7 million people on the program two years ago, and far below the post-recession peak of nearly 48 million in 2013. And, percentage-wise, the overwhelming majority of these recipients are children. In Iowa, 70 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are children.

By the USDA’s own admission, only 6 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not working. And the whole notion of “lifelong dependency” is a farce. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has noted, the USDA’s own research reveals that those who accept benefits for the longest periods “tend to be elderly individuals and people with disabilities.” In fact, according to the center, “About half of all non-disabled, childless adults who began receiving SNAP left within eight months, on average.”

But the Trump administration, unable to convince a Republican-controlled Congress to impose more strict work requirements on food assistance, is poised to make changes via the rules process by redefining “insufficient” job prospects. Since 1999, the USDA has used Department of Labor standards: when unemployment rates have hovered at least 20 percent over the national average for two years. The new proposals would forbid states to waive work requirements unless the unemployment is at least 20 percent higher than the national average and at least 7 percent for the previous two years. USDA officials provided no data to show why 7 percent was chosen, and have argued states could use a threshold as low as 4.5 percent unemployment.

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Experience shows that threatening a food supply doesn’t make it any easier to overcome poverty. It won’t increase access to child care, for instance, or encourage people to attain new workforce skills.

“Dignity of work” doesn’t replace the necessity of feeding our children.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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