Fewer on Food Stamps, But Hunger Persists

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Fears of deportation have deterred many undocumented immigrants, including Rose, and her children Egard and Olga, from using food stamps. 

Although some regions of the country are still reeling from the Great Recession, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation has been steadily falling. And recently, the decline in SNAP recipients has been particularly dramatic—the number of individuals reliant on SNAP (also known as food stamps) fell by more than two million people between June 2016 and June 2017. The best explanation for this drop-off is that the economy is finally improving, and former SNAP recipients have found jobs that push their incomes over the SNAP income eligibility limits.

But a recovering economy may not be the only factor contributing to this decline. There are two others to consider. The strict time limit on benefits that targets the unemployed has forced people off the program. The recent immigration crackdown also has heightened fears that even documented people may be detained and deported—which persuades many individuals and families to avoid interacting with the federal government in any way.

The number of people eligible for SNAP, the country’s largest food assistance program, expands and contracts to match the ups and downs of the economy. Anyone who meets the income and other eligibility requirements can receive SNAP benefits. So when there are more people in poverty, there are more people on SNAP. The number of people on food stamps surged during the recession—from 26.3 million people in 2007 to a peak of 47.6 million in 2013.

In addition to an increase in the number of people who needed food stamps, more eligible people actually applied for benefits. Some individuals who are eligible for SNAP may not apply due to their distaste for government assistance or because they believe that the application procedure is more trouble than it’s worth. During the recession, many people overcame these reservations: In 2007, 66 percent of the people eligible for SNAP received benefits—by 2013, that number was up to 85 percent.

As the economy recovers and people find jobs, participation numbers typically fall. Though the poverty rate is falling and job growth is steady, nominal wage growth remains slow, according to a September Economic Policy Institute report. Still, even this modest recovery has led to a drop in SNAP cases as recipients who were affected by the recession move off the program. The current decreases are in line with Congressional Budget Office projections in 2012.

But one punitive federal rule limits some low-income people’s access to SNAP benefits, not because they’ve gotten a job, but because they don’t have one. Immigrants also may choose to cancel their benefits or not apply at all. Over the past few years, more states have been required to implement a rule that limits “able-bodied adults without dependents” (as they are known in the federal SNAP statute) to just three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period unless they work at least 20 hours per week. It doesn’t matter how hard one is looking for a job, either—three months of benefits without work, and you’re out.

The federal government suspended this 1996 rule, which originally came into force during the Clinton administration’s welfare reform push, during the recession. Under the law, states can request waivers of the rule from the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service due to “insufficient jobs,” typically documented by a high unemployment rate across the state or in individual counties and cities. Nearly all states qualified for waivers after the recession. Today, with falling unemployment rates, most states are at least partially implementing the rule.

In April 2016, three months after the time limit had gone into effect in many states, and able-bodied adults who failed to work the mandated number of hours would be cut off from benefits, SNAP participation fell by an estimated 700,000 people. This figure includes anyone who is no longer on the program, including children; it’s too early to know for sure how many people were forced off the program by the time limit. But two years ago, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ projected that 500,000 to one million recipients would lose their benefits under the rule.

However, the official unemployment rate is not necessarily the best measure of unemployment. That official rate does not capture discouraged, would-be workers who have given up searching for a job, and it also doesn’t capture people who are underemployed who may work part time but would prefer to have a full-time job. The unemployment rate also does not capture the challenges facing low-income people who face obstacles in finding work including limited formal education; criminal records; homelessness; inadequate access to transportation; or undiagnosed physical or mental illnesses.

There’s also another category of individuals and families who might need benefits but aren’t getting them: eligible immigrants who fear detention or deportation. This fear is well-founded. In February, Trump administration officials drafted an executive order that detailed penalties for any immigrant who became a “public charge.”

Undocumented adults have never been eligible for SNAP benefits, and welfare reform made it difficult for documented immigrants to obtain them. A legal adult immigrant must live in the United States at least five years in order to be eligible. (Documented children can get food stamps at any time.) Children who were born in the U.S. can receive SNAP benefits even if their parents are undocumented. (Their parents can apply for them.) More than one in four low-income children are children of immigrants: 90 percent of these children are U.S. citizens, and therefore eligible for SNAP benefits.

The Washington Post reported in March that the White House plan sparked increased concern among both documented and undocumented people who use food banks due to “a climate of fear and terror.” Hard numbers on the extent of the problem—and whether it’s actually having a significant effect on participation—are hard to come by. Yet the anecdotal evidence is alarming.

Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh anti-hunger organization, tells The American Prospect that after the draft order (which was leaked to the Post), “the [immigrant] applications we handled plummeted to zero. Most of the people in that category were undocumented parents of citizen children.” He adds that many Pittsburgh-based immigrant organizations advised their clients not to apply for SNAP and stopped sending people to Just Harvest, and with good reason.

During the first three months of the Trump administration, arrests of undocumented people increased nearly 40 percent compared to the same period last year. In this Trumpian atmosphere, some undocumented parents may not be eager to apply for SNAP benefits for their children even if they are eligible. Yet six months after the draft order became public, nothing has happened, leading Regal to wonder if the order was leaked to “scare people.” “[The administration] didn’t get sued, didn’t have to change any rules”—and they still got the outcome they wanted, he says.

Trump’s 2018 budget proposal also is problematic: If the more than 25 percent cut to SNAP prevails, the changes could shift some costs to the states and force them cut food stamp benefit levels to make up the difference. The House Budget Committee’s plan is also harsh, transferring “significant authority” to the states coupled with a $150 billion cut, more than 20 percent. Since SNAP is only meant to supplement an individual’s or family’s food budget, eliminating or reducing an already-paltry benefit would undoubtedly hurt low-income people. Anti-hunger advocates are likely to see greater reliance on charity organizations, which are not equipped to deal with increases in hunger due to federal cutbacks. According to Bread for the World, a Washington-based anti-hunger organization, SNAP provides 20 times the assistance that private organizations like food banks or soup kitchens provide.

If low-income people are not participating in SNAP because they no longer need benefits, that’s a good sign that the economy may be picking up steam. However, pushing people off the program because they can’t find a job will likely only increase food insecurity. The same can be said for those people who do not apply for benefits or cancel them because of fears of deportation. And being hungry only compounds the stress of being poor in America.

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