At a time when the economy is strong and the job market is in great shape with a 3.6 percent unemployment rate, logic says that now is a good time to impose work requirements on those who receive “food stamp” assistance.
But the new rules announced by the Trump administration for food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ignore the reality of America in 2019 where most jobs are out of reach for those with few skills and limited opportunities.
The move to cut SNAP benefits for 668,000 recipients who don’t work would save the federal budget a modest $5.5 billion over five years.
Michigan will be one of the state’s hit hardest, and poor kids will be ones hurt the most.
Numerous studies have shown that the nation’s income inequality has created an underclass where many workers struggle with low pay, limited hours, no benefits or periodic layoffs. One-third of all workers earn less than $12 an hour and some estimates indicate that as much as 42 percent earn less than $15 hourly – somewhere between $24,960 and $31,200 a year for those assigned to erratic work schedules that often fall well below a full 40 hours per week.
At the same time, basic federal benefits for the poor are so low that they already provide a dramatic incentive for recipients to find work. But, beyond any regulations created in Washington, many of the poor have little more than the prospect of a low-wage job as a potential lifeline.
Living on less than $1,000 per month
In Michigan, the average SNAP allocation for a family of three (a typical household that relies on food assistance, led by a single mom) is about $380 a month. With some exceptions, a family of three that earns less than $27,700 a year – 130 percent of the poverty level – qualifies for help.
In addition to work requirements, cash welfare payments have shrunk dramatically. Michigan payments were $459 a month for a family of three in 1996 as federal welfare reform took effect. They rose to $492 monthly in 2010 and have remained there since. As a result, Michigan’s welfare payments under the current system, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), have declined by more than one-third, after inflation, since the ‘90s.
Incredibly, those minimal benefits remain well above several Southern states where TANF payments are as little as one-fifth of what’s needed to rise above the poverty line.
Imagine trying to raise a family, including the cost of housing, utilities, healthcare and transportation (car payments), on less than $1,000 a month. Can anyone plausibly argue that these people are comfortably sitting idle, with no need to find work?
Yet, many told by Trump to get off the dole include parents with limited education, health issues, mental health problems or substance abuse addictions – mostly from opioids or alcohol.
Rural residents and those age 50+ will suffer the most
Those living in rural areas or who are above 50 years old face the most difficulties in finding meaningful employment. Others who need SNAP assistance work seasonal jobs or part time jobs with unreliable hours. That includes those employed as waiters and waitresses and workers in the retail and tourism industry.
Many of those jobs won’t satisfy the president’s rules, which basically require at least 20 hours of work per week on a long-term basis. There is also a big tradeoff involved. If a SNAP recipient lands a mediocre job, they could lose their Medicaid healthcare benefits or subsidized child care.
It should be noted that surveys show more than 80 percent of SNAP recipients are working, looking for work, or are between jobs. Many of these people are out in plain sight, from Walmart cashiers to members of the military.
Most importantly, the vast majority of SNAP families use food aid benefits on a temporary basis, not for years at a time.
Knowing all of these factors, Congress last year rejected SNAP work requirements by a wide, bipartisan margin. An attempt to attach them to the 2018 farm bill failed in the House by a 330-83 vote and in the Senate by a 68-30 tally.