Donald Trump’s plutocratic administration has been promising to “reform” the food stamp program for months. In early December it announced that the first of these changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will kick in next spring, when nearly 700,000 people will lose their SNAP benefits. If the administration goes ahead with other proposed changes—such as removing from the rolls those with household savings or assets—millions more will have their benefits slashed or withdrawn entirely. And nearly 1 million children will lose automatic access to free or low-cost school lunches.
This attack on the social safety net is nothing new. Bill Clinton introduced strict work requirements when he signed the welfare “reform” bill of 1996: Although mainly remembered for creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the legislation also sets time limits on access to food stamps for the able-bodied, though it allows states to grant waivers during economic downturns.
In the wake of the 2008 crash, so many people hit the skids financially that Barack Obama’s administration loosened restriction so that more impoverished people could enroll in the food stamp program. After the Great Recession, many states continued to grant waivers, allowing nonworking able-bodied adult residents to claim SNAP benefits. The reason was that, even if a particular county had a low unemployment rate, it could still have clusters of high unemployment, including among people without the necessary transportation or child care. Those are the waivers the Trump administration is now rescinding.
Deficit hawks in the GOP have long yearned to extend the workfare requirement to SNAP and Medicaid. Until the recent election of a Democratic governor, Kentucky was working to introduce a workfare pilot program for Medicaid. These changes are pitched in terms of fairness, the idea being that in today’s economy, with its low unemployment rate, anyone who is healthy should have no problem finding a job and thus shouldn’t need taxpayer-funded benefits. Yet even in our supposedly booming economy, upward of 5 million people are unemployed, and there are over a million more who have gotten so frustrated with fruitless job searching that they have stopped looking and are thus statistically invisible when unemployment is calculated.
Many of these people would love to work but lack the education or skills needed to function in our high-tech economy—the result, in part, of decades of grievous underinvestment in public education and vocational training, especially for minority communities. Many others suffer from serious physical or mental ailments that make it difficult for them to work. Yet because of huge inequities in our access to health care, they can’t see the doctors who would provide the diagnoses and paperwork needed to keep them eligible for public benefits. Taking away these people’s food stamps will not increase their chances of finding employment, but it will increase the likelihood that they and their families go hungry.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Trump administration’s values is that this “reform” stresses that those who work will retain eligibility for food stamps. Think about that: In a country as wealthy as the United States, the government accepts that many workers will receive paychecks so puny that the state will have to step in to help their families avoid hunger. Yet the Senate still refuses to raise the federal minimum wage, GOP-run state governments resist increasing their minimum wages, and the US labor secretary remains dismissive of the idea. The result? Taxpayers pick up the tab by subsidizing, through public benefits, the scandalously low wages paid by corporate behemoths like Walmart, which receives tax breaks that benefit the company’s owners, not its workers. Bashing the poor while protecting the rich is the defining trait of this faux-populist administration, and its new food stamp policy is just the latest example of this sadistic impulse.