Originally published on Equal Voice.
Before the end of the year, reports say, Tennessee will have eliminated 150,000; Florida will cut 300,000 recipients; North Carolina will chop 110,000 from the rolls. More than 40 states will see changes in the program.
It will happen because this year – with foolhardy confidence in the dubious proposition that the economy has substantially improved – the federal policies overseeing the program reverted back to guidelines established under President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform package.
These guidelines restrict adults without children to food assistance for three months. Adults without young children who want to receive nutritional assistance beyond three months must find full-time jobs, or perform 20 hours a week of volunteer work (also known as “workfare”).
The result will be a massive housecleaning of the welfare state which should make some lawmakers happy. I presume these lawmakers will be salivating with joy that the reign has ended for the program expansion under President Barack Obama, the man who critics have called “the food stamp president.”
Millions of Americans have learned firsthand what it’s like to be on, and depend on, (and deal with the bureaucratic mazes entailed in) public assistance during the Great Recession. During these years, long-term unemployment pushed the Bush and Obama administrations to extend the eligibility for nutritional assistance beyond a three-month limit.
Americans receiving food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and which in a better world would be known as “a minimal food allowance,” reached a peak in 2012, with 14 .8 percent of the population receiving aid.
I was one of those new post-expansion enrollees. Since 2010, when I began to have serious health issues, with kidney, then prostate cancer, I’ve benefited from monthly food allowances ranging from $196, the childless adult maximum, to most recently $60 a month.
And since 2010, I’ve learned how much minimal assistance matters to the very needy.
Direct experience is a great teacher. I’ve often been in situations where by the end of the month, after I paid rent, gas and electric bills, I lacked money for food. Once, I had as little 85 cents left in the bank. I was expecting some checks to come in for work I had done, but they were still a week away.
I could have gone hungry for a week. I didn’t. For low-income families and individuals, like myself, a minimum food allowance is a small economic boost that can be remarkably stabilizing.
The subsidies ($196 maximum benefits for an adult, and $649 maximum for a family of four) do not buy privilege. A minimum food allowance doesn’t provide the means to keep a household. The subsidy isn’t enough to pay any individual or family food bill through a single month.
The benefits do keep recipients from having to eat at Taco Bell every day. They do keep recipients from the destabilization of having to go to a soup kitchen and stand in line for hours to eat.
A three-month limitation on nutritional assistance in combination with a program that helps childless adults find work may look like a good idea on paper. Why shouldn’t independent adults work? If they can’t find work, why shouldn’t they contribute to society performing volunteer labor? The jobless will, in theory, benefit from a training program which demands a real commitment – 20 hours per week.
But as with any idea, the key to its success or failure is the execution. The job training component is run at the discretion of state governments, and many states don’t provide it. So when recipients use up their three-month food stamp limit, they will simply be cast from the rolls.
The other issue is that studies show that work requirements do not reduce poverty because such programs do not address the systemic causes behind poverty and ultimately provide little benefit to the poor.
Large numbers of needy Americans lack long-term career experience, high school diplomas or valid driver’s licenses. Many are homeless. These remain obstacles to getting good jobs. Sadly, due to shortsightedness, volunteering in exchange for food stamps often provides a pretext to make participants “do something,” and the odds are small that a volunteer position will lead to full-time employment. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of nutritional assistance recipients already have part-time jobs.
Curtailing the nutritional assistance rolls amounts to denying food to countless Americans who work, yet earn so little, they often find themselves having to choose between paying for food or their other bills.
The economy has not improved sufficiently to provide full-time work for the massive numbers of Americans who have been crippled by poverty since the Great Recession. We can’t be fooled into thinking the economy has improved for everyone.
While unemployment has dropped to 4.7 percent, it doesn’t count the 3 million potential workers who have dropped out of the labor force because they could not find work. It those people were counted, the unemployment rate would rise to 6.5 percent.
And even when they do find work, it is often in low-paying jobs that don’t allow them to make ends meet. And they’ll go hungrier.