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Nydia Dominguez is a 64-year-old grandmother of four in Newburgh, New York. Through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Dominguez receives $500 a month to feed herself and her young grandchildren. With SNAP—colloquially known as food stamps—and a little thrift at the grocery store, she manages to provide meals for her family and even neighbors in need.
“I budget everything,” says Dominguez. “I go through all the specials, and that’s how I work it out.”
But come April 1, Dominguez and nearly a million other SNAP recipients would have no longer been able to rely on SNAP. That’s when policy changes forcing recipients to find jobs or lose their benefits—amid an unprecedented downturn in the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic—would have taken effect. Thankfully, advocates from 21 states, New York City, and Washington, DC, were able to halt the changes just weeks earlier.
The Trump administration first proposed these policy changes to SNAP last April. At the heart of the so-called rule changes is a redefinition of how states, counties, and municipalities receive waivers from the federal government exempting residents receiving SNAP from work requirements because of the lack of employment opportunities in their areas. Local governments were previously allowed to define their own geographic areas for waivers, which could be as small as individual municipalities; the changes would set the geographic areas according to the Department of Labor’s labor market areas, which can span multiple states. By expanding the geographic area, the federal government could deny that there was a lack of employment opportunity and thereby deny waivers.
“To give you an example, DC makes up only one small portion of the labor market area in which it sits,” explains Kathleen Konopka, Washington, DC’s deputy attorney general of public advocacy. “Included in that labor market area is 16 counties in Virginia, I think five or six in Maryland, and one in West Virginia. It’s a very large area.”
As Konopka explains, expanding Washington, DC’s waiver to include the surrounding areas assumes district residents can compete with commuters for the same jobs—but that isn’t the case. Reliant on public transportation, DC’s SNAP recipients are limited to local employment opportunities. Because the district largely lacks industry, manufacturing, and agricultural work, local opportunities tend to skew more highly skilled, with up to 75 percent requiring a college degree. Not only do the majority of DC’s SNAP recipients have a high school diploma or less, but educational attainment in the surrounding areas is higher per capita, meaning commuters are more likely than residents to get local jobs. Thus the proposed changes to SNAP would likely fail to push recipients into work; they would only deprive them of access to food.
The Washington, DC Attorney General’s Office led the opposition to Trump’s proposal. With a coalition of 21 states, the district first objected via comments on the rule changes. When that failed to prevent the changes from being scheduled to take effect, the coalition, along with New York City, sued the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, in federal court in January. The suit argued that besides “depriving between 688,000 and 850,000 vulnerable Americans of much-needed nutritional assistance,” the policy changes were flat-out unlawful as they contradicted previous statutes empowering states to determine the local criteria for waivers. On March 13, a federal judge issued an injunction halting the changes. The timing could not have been better, as the Covid-19 pandemic was bringing the US economy to a standstill.
“We elected to litigate against this rule before the pandemic was even in play because this rule is unlawful and would have a huge impact on our residents and on the residents of the nation if it were to go into effect, even without the pandemic,” says Konopka. “The pandemic only amplifies those effects.”
Should the proposed changes to SNAP have gone through, the consequences would have been devastating. Maggie Dickinson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Guttman Community College in New York City, spent three years researching the program for her recently published book Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net, which describes the decades-long effort to shackle SNAP benefits to work requirements. Dickinson observes that, while nearly 40 million people already rely on SNAP, that number is bound to explode as the COVID-19 pandemic forces businesses to close and pushes their workers into unemployment. Expecting SNAP recipients to find jobs at a moment like this would have been tantamount to “starving them,” in Dickinson’s words.
“If Trump’s new rule went into effect on April 1,” she posits, “these people would be limited to three months of SNAP and then they would be cut off from benefits for three years, unless they could prove they were working twenty hours a week.”
The injunction means that the Trump administration’s changes to SNAP will not go into effect until the lawsuit led by the Washington DC Attorney General’s Office has concluded. Konopka says that her office is currently in talks with the federal government to set a schedule to continue the litigation. In the meantime, Congress’s first bill addressing the pandemic, passed on March 18, has also extended SNAP eligibility by removing the three-month time limit cited by Dickinson.
Contacted for comment by The Nation, a USDA press officer described the proposed policy changes as simply helping SNAP recipients “experience the transformative power of work.”
Closer to reality, in Newburgh, Nydia Dominguez fumes over the proposal. The city was preparing to lose its waiver when it received news of the injunction, preserving residents’ access to SNAP through 2020 or whenever the lawsuit concludes.
“I did hear, at the beginning of the year, that he was going to cut a lot of people off SNAP,” she says of Trump. “And I really went ballistic.”
Despite being formally unemployed, Dominguez commits much of her time to volunteering—a common trend among SNAP recipients, according to Dickinson’s research. Dominguez volunteers with churches in Newburgh, many of which distribute free meals, groceries, and other necessities to the community. If she had been pushed off of SNAP by the Trump administration’s policy changes, Dominguez imagines that she would have had to turn to church charities to feed herself and her grandchildren. Unfortunately, those same churches are now shuttered because of the ongoing pandemic—illustrating how close Dominguez and people like her came to having their access to food completely cut off.
“Right now all the churches are closed,” says Dominguez. “No church is supplying anything at the moment.… Even if you call them, there’s nobody answering the phones.”