This April Fools’ Day, Congress will play a cruel trick on the country’s most destitute people: It will make their food disappear. They will lose access to food stamps—not because they’re no longer in need of assistance, but because, in a way, they need it too much.
A twisted legislative quirk embedded in the Clinton-era welfare reform law is timed to go into effect after March 31 in several states, blowing a gaping hole in the already threadbare social safety net.
The cuts purport to impose fiscal discipline on poor people who are “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWD)—meaning adults without young children. The rule sets a three-month limit on food stamps for across a three-year period “when they aren’t employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.”
The formula, which suggests a lack of “work ethic,” does not account for how long you’ve been searching for a job, or local social conditions. The main defining characteristic of the “able-bodied” is apparently that they’re breathing—and hungry. “These are not people who are sitting on their sofas eating bonbons,” says Margarette Purvis, head of Food Bank for New York City. “Our system does not have the adequate resources for all of these ‘able bodies’ to do exactly what the government is supposedly saying what they want them to do. The systems are not there. Plain and simple.”
The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities (CBPP) estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million people nationwide, most of them living in extreme poverty, “will lose SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits as a result of states’ reimposition of the three-month time limit.”
In many areas, the cuts will be triggered automatically because previous legislative waivers, which temporarily shielded local households from the time limit, have lapsed. Of the 23 states where the cuts will be newly instituted this year, according to CBPP, 19, including New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Connecticut, have waivers that are losing eligibility this year. Lawmakers in Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, and West Virginia are voluntarily “choosing to reimpose the time limit,” presumably because they think taking people’s food aid away is worth the “savings” for state coffers.
New Yorkers are casualties of the city’s tragic arithmetic of inequality. The huge wealth gap has skewed the area’s economic profile enough to push Manhattan out of waiver eligibility, so local socioeconomic indicators essentially price the neediest out of their benefits. Local antipoverty organizations project that 53,000 people across New York State are due to lose their benefits (typically around $190 per month). These households will experience funding reductions equivalent to an estimated 31 million meals per year.
As a consequence of living in a highly stratified city, Purvis says, people will see their already meager food budgets slashed further, “not because they’ve done anything wrong…[but because] they just happen to be in Manhattan and poor; they are basically being punished for that.”
The cuts are one component of the Clinton administration’s infamous 1996 welfare reforms, which imposed harsh limits on benefits through bureaucratic “sanctions” and onerous work requirements, which exacerbated extreme poverty and pushed many out of the welfare system altogether.
The victims of the cuts do not match the facile stereotype of the single jobless male deadbeat sponging off welfare. It simply means they are childless adults—half of a childless couple, a single parent of a 19-year-old, or a caregiver to an elderly parent.
About half of the affected individuals are white, a third are black, and 10 percent Latino; about 40 percent are women. About 40 percent live in the suburbs, with the same portion in cities. Arguably, the people targeted for cuts are those who can least afford them: CBPP reports that the individuals in the ABAWD group generally “either don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or any other federal or state cash or food assistance benefit,” or they’ve been out of work for so long (generally more than half a year) that they’ve used up their unemployment insurance.
According to CBPP, the ABAWD population “are more likely than other SNAP participants to lack basic job skills like reading, writing, and basic mathematics”—hampering their prospects in a “recovering economy” where over four in 10 unemployed people have been jobless for 15 weeks or more. Besides, a job alone doesn’t preclude deep poverty; about half of families with children on food stamps actually earn income from work.
Whether states are proactively implementing the SNAP cap or just letting benefits lapse out of malign neglect, antipoverty groups argue that a more comprehensive approach to hunger is needed—not merely through emergency aid, but programs that look beyond whether people are superficially “able” to work and that contemplate the social burdens the poor face when struggling toward self-sufficiency.
Since most of the affected states lack comprehensive employment assistance programs, advocates argue that simply cutting benefits would only ensure they show up to their next job interview even more miserable and hungry.
Antihunger groups are now pinning their hopes on pieces of corrective legislation pending in Congress, to at least provide some economic support to the affected populations by preventing SNAP termination until emergency job-training programs are implemented.
In some cases, CBPP warns, underfunded and understaffed local welfare office caseworkers may neglect to flag individuals with “temporary disabling injuries or mental illness” who should qualify for an individual exemption. And those private charities that conservatives praise as a surrogate for public assistance for the hungry are themselves resource-starved.
According to Food Bank surveys, in the city’s shadow sector of food aid, roughly half of the food pantry network is running on empty: driven by volunteer labor alone, or struggling with dwindling stocks and budget deficits.
“If the average soup kitchen or food pantry in this city was a person, they too would be low income,” Purvis says. “And that’s where we’re telling these people, who have nothing, to go.”
So on April 1, an unknown number of able bodies will be told the government has no relief left for them. Then, perhaps, their bodies will line up at their local church pantry, only to find empty shelves. That’s what they get for being too able, yet too poor, while living amid too much wealth.