On the eve of the Trump administration’s announcement of a new rule that could eliminate benefits for nearly 700,000 people, I was at an event for a national faith-based hunger charity, surrounded by people who work to help Americans in need. Exhausted and disappointed by this latest assault on the low-income people we serve, we shared our frustration with the administration’s use of the term “able-bodied” to describe who will be affected to obscure what the rule really is: cruelty directed at Americans living in poverty.
The rule, which will take effect in April, makes it more difficult for states, even those that have economically distressed areas where jobs are scarce, to waive a requirement that “able-bodied” adults without dependents work at least 20 hours a week to keep their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps).
It will strip 6.2 billion meals from Americans over the next decade. It took Food Bank for New York City nearly 35 years to deliver one billion meals to our neighbors in need. There is no amount of generosity by corporate or traditional philanthropy to any charity that will make up for this loss caused by policy.
The administration says the new rule will encourage people receiving SNAP to find jobs. But we know of neither history nor data connecting the creation of hunger with viable work opportunities for the vulnerable. The idea of cutting SNAP to encourage employment is confusing to us, and probably even more so to the countless Americans who are both working and still needing the help SNAP provides to afford food.
If enacted, this rule will target households with an average income of $557 per month, which in New York City means that about 70,000 will be affected. While neither hunger nor SNAP utilization discriminates, this rule will also disproportionately hurt people of color and the local grocery stores that are able to stay open with help from customers using SNAP.
People in many high-cost-of-living areas and economically distressed communities won’t be protected from this ruthless policy, even as the average cost of a meal in Manhattan approaches $6 — nearly double the national average.
While the rule will not affect SNAP recipients with dependents, those over age 50, pregnant women or people with disabilities, it will affect many other vulnerable people, like poor college students and people who need to care for a family member and cannot work. It will impact more people than live in the city of Boston. And it will create hunger, not a work incentive. Job training makes for better job candidates — hunger does not.
SNAP is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger. When people cannot get this crucial support, they are forced to turn to the emergency food network. Unfortunately, charity support cannot make up for the impact created by bad policy. Food Bank for New York City’s soup kitchens and food pantries are already stretching their resources trying to meet rising need and often coming up short. Our recent report found that 85 percent of soup kitchens and pantries cited an increase in first-time visitors this year, and more than half said they ran out of food in a given month last year.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I was at our soup kitchen in Harlem attempting to calm people waiting in a line that stretched down the street. When a donor asked me if the crowd was due to the upcoming holiday, I explained that no, the line is about growing poverty in an increasingly expensive neighborhood. That line was just one of hundreds across our city.
The alleviation of hunger has historically been a goal that is supported by Democrats and Republicans. That’s why, in a bipartisan vote last year, Congress blocked efforts to pass SNAP restrictions through the Farm Bill. But the administration bypassed Congress, proposed this rule and ignored the more than 100,000 Americans across our country who submitted comments opposing it. Our leaders in Washington must come together to block it.
Many people in communities across the country will need help putting food on the table this holiday season and beyond. Americans have always opened our wallets to help our neighbors, but that alone won’t offset the effects of policies that dismantle the nation’s safety net and leave so many hungry.
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