This column contains an update.
The Trump administration is on the verge of making an end run around Congress, attempting to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by fiat. Its latest effort is a proposed rule that is open for public comment until April 10.* This rule would restrict SNAP eligibility by limiting states’ flexibility to help jobless or underemployed workers in struggling regions. By the administration’s own estimate, enacting this rule would substantially increase hunger and hardship, stripping at least 755,000 Americans of food assistance—though other estimates suggest it could be more than 1 million—and cut SNAP by $15 billion, slashing more than 178,000 jobs over the coming decade. The administration’s most recent attempt to cut SNAP comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s failed attempt to achieve similar SNAP cuts in the 2018 Farm Bill—cuts that Congress rejected on a bipartisan basis.
This proposed rule is not just cruel; it is also bad policy. Making people hungrier will not help them find work any faster; it will only kick underemployed and unemployed workers when they are down. Most working-age SNAP participants who are not receiving disability benefits are working, but they are often in unstable jobs with volatile schedules and low wages, making them especially likely to be affected by the rule. If Trump were serious about promoting work, he would embrace policies such as increasing the minimum wage and providing affordable, high-quality child care, both of which are popular across party lines. By contrast, cutting SNAP is deeply unpopular: Two-thirds of Americans oppose cuts to food assistance.
President Trump’s latest attempt to slash SNAP would be harmful to Americans across the country, but certain communities face particular risks. This column looks at six of the groups that Trump’s proposed rule would hit the hardest.
Given that 76 percent of rural adults report that good jobs are scarce in their area, rural communities will be among the hardest hit by Trump’s proposed rule, as it would tie states’ hands and remove the flexibility they need to help residents of high-unemployment areas put food on the table. Indeed, while urban areas experienced a net gain of 3.6 million jobs from 2007 to 2015, rural areas lost 400,000 jobs during that time, meaning that many rural areas have struggled to recover from the Great Recession.
Moreover, rural populations already face additional barriers to work. For example, lack of access to broadband is impeding the growth of rural economies, hampering total employment growth and the opening of new businesses. Additionally, rural economies have less industrial diversity than urban areas, and in some communities in particular, the departure of a central employer has led to tremendous job loss. Given these challenges, states need more flexibility, not less, in order to decide how best to protect and invest in rural areas, as the administration’s economic policies have not decreased the widening urban and rural divide.
Black and Latinx Americans
Black and Hispanic households are especially likely to be food insecure and thus disproportionately rely on SNAP to help them meet basic needs, accounting for about 30 percent and nearly 20 percent of SNAP benefits in 2016, respectively. This is due in large part to the systemic barriers that African Americans and Latinx Americans face to building wealth, purchasing homes, accessing education, and escaping poverty. Poverty rates in these communities are more than double those of white Americans, and the black unemployment rate is still more than twice that of white workers. In 2016, black Americans’ median wealth was only $13,460, compared with $142,180 for white Americans.
Meanwhile, even with labor force participation rates similar to those of white workers, Center for American Progress analysis finds that Latinx Americans face higher unemployment rates and more employment volatility. What’s more, Latinx individuals still earn lower hourly wages; face discrimination from lenders that results in costlier debt; hold one-sixth of the amount of wealth that whites do; and have lower retirement incomes. Making these communities hungrier and reducing their economic security will only exacerbate current inequities.
People with disabilities
The proposed rule purports to apply only to “able-bodied adults without dependents.” But many of the more than 11 million people with disabilities who receive SNAP assistance could lose that assistance under the rule, as people who face limited work capacity due to disability or poor health are regularly misclassified as “able-bodied” for the purposes of SNAP. In fact, based on analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the author estimates that roughly 12 percent of SNAP recipients ages 18 to 59 have at least one physical, functional, or work limitation but are not counted as disabled under SNAP.
Under current law, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses already frequently lose food assistance in error. In 2013, a study by the Ohio Association of Food Banks found that when the state reimposed time limits—the same limits, in fact, that Trump’s rule proposes to make even harsher—1 in 3 of the state’s SNAP enrollees who were defined as “able bodied” had a medical or physical impairment. Moreover, Trump’s rule would compound the already significant barriers to work that many people with disabilities face, including a lack of long-term health services and supports, poor workplace accommodations, discrimination, and more.
Disabled workers are much more likely to live at or near the federal poverty threshold, experiencing nearly double the poverty rate of nondisabled workers. Nearly 32 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 with disabilities participate in the labor force; they are three times more likely to be unemployed than their nondisabled counterparts. Among people with disabilities who do work, about 31 percent work part-time jobs—nearly twice the rate of their nondisabled counterparts. Notably, part-time jobs often feature inadequate benefits and low wages. Trump’s proposed rule would make it harder for people with disabilities to work by increasing their food insecurity. It could also lead to additional health concerns due to malnutrition.
People with criminal records
The proposed rule particularly harms people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Nearly 9 in 10 employers use criminal background checks in hiring; this means that even an old, minor criminal record can serve as a life sentence to poverty and joblessness. As a result, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is approximately 27 percent. What’s more, one study shows that 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year following their release.
By helping people put food on the table while they get back on their feet, SNAP is a powerful tool for supporting re-entry and preventing recidivism. In fact, one study shows that when formerly incarcerated people are subjected to harsher SNAP requirements, compounded by the substantial barriers that they already face, recidivism rates increase. Taking SNAP away from workers as they struggle to rebuild their lives and re-enter the labor market would thus directly undercut the bipartisan gains that the president and Congress supported in the FIRST STEP Act.
Trump’s proposed rule would also be particularly burdensome for the LGBTQ community. According to a 2017 nationally representative CAP survey, LGBTQ people are more than twice as likely as non-LGBTQ people to receive SNAP benefits, with 26 percent of LGBTQ women and 18 percent of LGBTQ men reporting that they or their families received SNAP. The disproportionate receipt of benefits is just one reason that this rule would be particularly burdensome for the LGBTQ community; the rule would also especially harm LGBTQ workers because they are especially likely to face labor market barriers that make it more difficult for them to find employment. For example, according to another nationally representative survey, at least 1 in 5 LGBTQ people has experienced discrimination in hiring, pay, and promotions. And according to the largest nationwide survey of transgender people, 16 percent of transgender workers report having lost their job because of discrimination due to their gender identity.
Women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce, making them especially likely to face the unstable schedules that would be punished by the Trump proposal’s punitive time limits. In addition to the challenges of low-wage work, women are disproportionately likely to be caregivers, including caring for people who may not be considered “dependents” under Trump’s proposed SNAP rule. For example, women are nearly 1.4 times more likely than men to provide unpaid care and help to people who live outside of their home. While women struggle to manage the challenges of unstable low-wage work and caregiving, they are also more likely to face workplace discrimination than men. For example, nearly 36 percent of women who filed sexual harassment charges from 2012 to 2016 claimed that they faced retaliation as a result, such as their employers forcing them out of their jobs or reducing their hours. Therefore, women who face discrimination may be more likely to be subject to the proposed rule.
Providing food assistance that averages just $1.40 per person per meal, SNAP is a modest benefit, with nearly half of participants running out of benefits before the end of the month. If anything, policymakers should be debating how much to increase SNAP benefits, given that there’s no room for cuts. What’s more, Trump’s tax law gave more in tax breaks to the top 1 percent than SNAP costs in its entirety. And if the Trump administration is looking for strategies to achieve savings in SNAP while actually helping workers, it need look no further than raising the federal minimum wage. Raising the federal minimum wage to $12—not even the $15 proposed in the Raise the Wage Act—would save $53 billion over the next 10 years, nearly four times as much as the proposed rule, by ensuring that workers earn more so that they are better able to afford food, instead of punishing labor market struggles with hunger.
Donovan Hicks is a research associate with the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
Author’s note: While “Hispanic” and “Latinx” are frequently used interchangeably, this column uses “Latinx” wherever possible to refer to the population of interest. “Hispanic” is only used in instances where the underlying data source referenced uses the term instead of “Latinx.”
By slashing benefits, Trump’s proposal will ensure increased hunger and insecurity without raising anyone’s wages or creating a single job. But people still have time to speak out against the rule by submitting comments by April 10.
* Update, April 4, 2019: This column has been updated to reflect that due to the federal government’s website difficulties, HandsOffSNAP.org will be collecting comments until April 10.