Another View: Food assistance not safe from harmful cuts

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The Trump administration this week told more than 700,000 poor Americans that they'd better enjoy the holidays — there are lean times ahead.

Denied its wish to strengthen work requirements for food stamps through the recently passed farm bill, the administration is taking similar steps through rulemaking, which does not require congressional approval. Sixty days after the new rules are published, waivers for work requirements now available in areas of high unemployment will be waived themselves — and hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It could have been worse. House Republicans, with input from Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine's 2nd District, proposed in the farm bill a number of SNAP changes, including stricter work requirements, that could have reduced benefits for 2 million Americans and deprived 265,000 low-income children of free school meals. President Trump threw his support behind the proposal, but it was stricken from the final bill.

The administration says work requirements encourage those on food stamps to find a job and thus pull themselves out of poverty. Sonny Perdue, secretary of agriculture, said they restore the "dignity of work."

But if that is truly the goal, there are far better ways to accomplish it than taking away food from a person who is struggling. No, this isn't about giving a hand up — it's about an ideological effort to slice public benefits, justified by the fiction they tell about poor Americans.

SNAP requires that most adults without dependents work. States can apply for waivers in areas where employment lags, and almost all states — including Maine — have used them.

With the country nationally at nearly full employment, the Trump administration says people should have no trouble finding jobs. If they aren't working, the argument goes, it's because they're lazy, and the threat of losing assistance is necessary to nudge them in the right direction.

But the argument doesn't hold up.

Most food-stamp recipients who can work do, at least periodically. Anyway, there is no large group of freeloaders out there, just a lot of people working low-paying jobs with unstable hours for whom the $1.40 per meal SNAP assistance is a crucial lifeline.

The few who don't work and don't have dependents — about 2.8 million out of the 40 million Americans on SNAP — are not sitting at home living off the government; benefits commonly referred to as "welfare" just aren't that generous. Instead, most of them are struggling to get by.

And they don't fit into any neat box. Called "able-bodied," they often have chronic illness and mental health problems. Said to be without dependents, they are often involved in caregiving. Portrayed as shirking work, they often don't have skills that fit the jobs available.

The barriers facing these Americans are real, and taking away food assistance doesn't do anything to help overcome them. In fact, experience shows that work requirements don't lead to stable employment. And they don't reduce hunger.

The requirements, however, do reduce SNAP rolls, and that's the point — to save a little money, no matter the consequence.

A better plan would be to increase the federal minimum wage, which would provide more money to the majority of SNAP recipients who work, and who are working for less every year that the minimum wage stays flat. In fact, a $12-per-hour wage would save SNAP $53 billion over the next decade, because workers would no longer qualify.

But that plan would mean letting go of the trope of the poor layabout, and further cutting public benefits requires poor Americans to be held in contempt, whatever the reality.

Portland (Maine) Press Herald

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