Dec. 12 2019

Our Experts Respond to the New Food Stamp Rules

On December 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new rules for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) better known as food stamps. When they are put in place next year, new work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependent children will strip benefits from an estimated 700,000 Americans.

In the assessment of Columbia Mailman policy experts, flaws in the new rules could increase the number of food-insecure Americans and increase the risk for health problems related to insufficient nutrition and the stress of poverty. A 2018 report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concludes that the food stamp program—by far the largest anti-hunger program in the United States—both improves nutrition and reduces healthcare costs

Peter Muennig, professor of health policy and management, has studied the effects of welfare policy by quantifying their effects on healthcare costs. His 2015 study of the 1990s welfare reform legislation found the replacement program lowered costs but was less able to promote recipients’ longevity compared to its original configuration. Currently, he is working on a study looking at whether work incentives and coaching can improve health outcomes.  

In announcing the new rules for SNAP, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue cited the “strongest economy in a generation.” While unemployment numbers are at 50-year lows, Muennig argues that millions of Americans have been left behind, including those who have given up on finding a job or are working fewer hours than they want—both groups not counted in unemployment figures. With wages stagnant, while housing and education costs climb, many depend on food stamps for survival.

Transportation is another obstacle in a car-dependent country. “Many people do not have a car to get to work,” Muennig says. “There’s a vicious cycle in which you need a job to buy a car, and you need a car to get a job.” Moreover, if you do own a car to commute to work it could disqualify you from receiving food stamps because it counts as an asset.

Another problem is that many deemed “able-bodied” are in fact unable to work. They include those with mental health challenges—particularly personality disorders and intellectual disabilities—but also more common ailments like depression and anxiety. “It is not easy in some areas to be classified as disabled or eligible for social security,” he says.

Caregivers, too, often face difficulties proving themselves eligible for government assistance. For example, they might be someone in their 40s and 50s who is a primary caregiver for their grandchildren or is a caregiver for their elderly parents—or both.

“Technically, there should be exemptions for most of these issues,” Muennig says, “but surveys of Medicaid recipients for work requirements identify these types of factors as reasons why they cannot work, and it is difficult for them to prove their circumstances prevent them from working.”

Immigrants Excluded

The new rule goes in effect next April, despite vigorous opposition from advocates, legislators and the general public. And they aren’t the only recent changes in SNAP. In August, the USDA announced rules that will deny green cards to immigrants who use food stamps, housing vouchers, or other forms of public assistance. Since the mid-1990s, federal law has already required those seeking green cards and legal status to prove they aren’t a “public charge.” The new rules detail a broader range of programs that could disqualify them.  

Manuela Orjuela-Grimm, assistant professor of epidemiology, studies dietary intake in Mexico and in recent immigrants in New York City. “In the population I work with in New York, SNAP is not an option. There are a lot of people who are not using SNAP who need it.”  

In addition, roughly a quarter of Americans who could qualify for SNAP don’t take part in the program, either because they don’t know that they’re eligible, are unable or unwilling to complete the paperwork to enroll, or that they feel a stigma associated with food stamps.

According to the USDA, more than 41 million Americans face hunger, including nearly 13 million children. Facing hunger is stressful—one of the many stresses of poverty—and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, poor school performance, and can heighten risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

History Lesson

Rules restricting access to SNAP—including two additional proposed restrictions—are rooted in ideology dating back to the English Poor Laws of the 1600s which viewed poverty as a personal choice rather than the result of misfortune or an economic system that creates inequality. Recipients were required to work, and those who did not work were punished. In the United States during the early years of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover, despite being born into poverty, resisted federal aid, preferring private charity, however insufficient.   

“Forced work for food is nothing new but it denies a fundamental human right to decent food,” says Mark Bittman, a special advisor for food policy in the Department of Health Policy and Management. “Of course, the U.S. has never been very good at acknowledging that right, but this administration, predictably, is worse at it than any since that of Herbert Hoover.”