New guidelines proposed by the Trump administration require all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients who are aged 18 to 49, able bodied, and without dependents to work a minimum 20 hours a week in order to maintain consistent access to the programs benefits. If work requirements aren’t met, benefits will be caped at only 3 months within a 36-month period. According to reporting by the New York Times, these changes could cause nearly 700,000 people to lose assistance through the program.
The change was set to become effective on April 1st, 2020 and had the potential to impact thousands. In the wake of COVID-19, nearly 17 million people so far have filed for unemployment with many also applying for food assistance. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is the largest food assistance program in the country helping nearly 19 million households as recently as December of 2019.
Luckily, Washington D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell blocked these changes in early March by granting a national injunction filed by fourteen states plus New York City and the District of Columbia. Judge Howell reportedly claimed the changes were “arbitrary and capricious”. The judge has not been the only person with harsh words to say to those looking to cut food assistance. Democratic representatives Sanford D Bishop Jr. from Georgia and Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut have come out against the changes stating in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, “Enacting any such changes during this time will only exacerbate current economic anxiety and unnecessarily increase the burden on the very people who need assistance,”
While the administrations plans have been halted for the time being, in his 2021 budget, Trump has proposed cutting spending on SNAP by over $180 billion. That cut would constitute a nearly 30% reduction in funds. Meanwhile, in the past decade, funds for the program have decreased by almost $50 billion. Cuts to the free and reduced lunch program that allows over 29 million students have access to affordable lunches in schools are also included in this budget.
The Food and Action Research Center has called the programs benefits inadequate in a study published February of last year. The most glaring issue with the program that was mentioned is the fact that the amount of benefit given to most homes is not enough to last the entire month. Families often are running on fumes by the end of the month and have to stretch their benefits to the very limits in an attempt to make ends meet. Due to this, caloric intake, dietary quality, and meal frequency are severely impacted. Studies have also shown a negative impact on students test scores in correlation with diminishing SNAP benefits. Those on SNAP who live with diabetes have shown signs of increased hypoglycemia, low blood sugar episodes, toward the end of the month.
The Institute of Medicine linked multiple reasons as to why benefits are substandard. These reasons include the amount of benefit lagging behind inflation, trade offs between the price of nutritious food and those that lack substance, and SNAP rules regard what can and cannot be considered food purchases. The FRAC says the food plan that the USDA base SNAP benefits from has a myriad of problems, meaning the very basis of the program is flawed. The plan, known as the Thrifty Food Plan, doesn’t consider special dietary needs, contains impractical food lists, and lacks a variety of food that dietary guidelines recommend.
The plan further assumes that families have proper means and time to prepare food on the list as well as the availability of food in their area. This can be a problem for families that live in food deserts, a term for areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. It is estimated that there are nearly 24 million people in the United States that are living in food deserts. These areas often have an abundance of fast food chains as well as convenience type grocery but lack supermarkets where fresh produce is more likely to be available.
The positive impacts of SNAP improvements have been documented in the wake of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. After the act went into affect, benefits lasted longer into the month and food insecurity decreased by 2.2%. Families were shown to have spent money on other important expenditures such as education and housing. Caloric intake normally drops by as much as 25% by the months end for those using SNAP. When the ARRA was in place, this drop was eliminated. The act was repealed in 2013 resulting in an increase in food insecurity by 7.6% and an increase in the likelihood of households with children becoming food insecure.
Progressive changes to federal food assistance programs have been suggested for years. Statistics from the National Conference of State Legislators show that one in seven families are food insecure, meaning they aren’t certain where their next meal will come from. The most effective change would be to revamp the Thrifty Food Plan, which according to the USDA website, is based on data from nearly 2 decades ago. By doing so, the program can have a more inclusive and realistic foundation thus making it easier to help all kinds of families based on their needs. Other suggested changes include raising the minimum benefit per month, eliminating caps for certain deductions, and reinvestigating the issue of food deserts and how families spend on food.
The current minimum monthly benefit for SNAP sits at a meager $16. The Closing the Meal Gap Act was proposed in 2019 and has been cosponsored by 117 representatives. The bill requests a boost in the minimum monthly benefit to $25 as well as eliminating the cap on the SNAP Excess Shelter Deduction, which states that a household may deduct excess shelter costs that are more than half of the household’s income after other deductions. These costs include rent, mortgage, heating, cooling, water, and other expenditures necessary to keep the family sheltered. Families that have elderly or disabled members can be eligible for an uncapped version of this deduction. Another change being requested in the bill regards households that would be eligible for that uncapped deduction.
If a deduction called the SNAP Standard Excess Medical Deduction were added, funds could be deducted to help care for those family members who are elderly or disabled. The proposed deduction has a minimum standard of $140. The bill is currently in the hands of the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations and has been there since March 15th of last year.