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.