Officially, 40.6 Americans live in poverty. Of that number, 1 in 3 are children. If the U.S. is about progress and families, then why, as the poor ask, are there efforts to chip away at systems that help keep people from going hungry in the face of questionable policies?
At any given moment, roughly 1 in 6 Americans relies on some form of government-funded food assistance – food stamps, Meals on Wheels, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), free and reduced school lunches and other programs. Without these services, millions of Americans would regularly go hungry or end up eating cheap, unhealthy foods just to survive.
Government-funded interventions such as food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), are among the most successful parts of the country’s social safety net. And at a time when many other parts of that net have frayed, anti-poverty advocates say they represent all-too-rare rays of light.
“SNAP is a bridge for people who’ve hit a financial crisis,” said Debbie Norman, outreach coordinator at United South Broadway Corporation. The community service agency is based in New Mexico, a state with a large number of poor residents who rely on food assistance.
“Why would the government get rid of something that helps people get back on their feet?” Norman said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has demonstrated an extraordinarily cavalier approach to these programs, calling for massive cuts to budgets and arguing that private charities – which currently only provide about 5 percent of food services to vulnerable Americans – will pick up the slack.
The bulk of those cuts target food stamp programs.
Maria, a 54-year-old housecleaner raising four of her grandchildren in New Mexico, is terrified by this prospect. Like any grandparent, she cares deeply about the safety of her grandchildren.
As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, she doesn’t qualify for food stamps, but her grandchildren do.
Maria’s ability to work is increasingly hampered by her fear of being nabbed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swarming her neighborhood. Now, she worries reductions to food assistance programs could cause the family to slide into crisis.
“I feel very badly about this,” she said in Spanish. “What are we going to do? What’s going to happen?”
Trump’s budget advisors have proposed 30-percent cuts to SNAP. Their 2019 proposal includes replacing a portion of current EBT-card benefits with a “harvest box” of low-end canned goods, dairy surplus products and other boxed, heavily processed, and correspondingly unhealthy, foods.
The plan also would stop states, such as California, from letting applicants for food stamps maintain small savings accounts and own basic assets like a functioning car so they can drive to work, as well as adding strict work requirements for so-called “able-bodied” adults applying for assistance.
Albuquerque resident Louie Montano, 62, knows exactly what this would mean for him. Decades ago while working on a construction site, Montano fell off a building and broke both of his feet. His injuries never fully healed, and he’s now unable to stand for long periods of time or lift heavy objects.
For years, he worked at a call center – but when that job ended, he couldn’t find suitable employment that didn’t involve standing. He eventually applied for disability, but his application was repeatedly denied since he could theoretically work sitting down.
What he did manage to access, however, was food stamps. Without assistance, he would have to make difficult decisions such as choosing between paying his $605-a-month rent or his utility bills and car insurance.
“It would affect me quite a bit if they cut my food stamps off,” Montano said. “It would change my life. Buy groceries or pay bills. If my car breaks down, I’m shit out of luck. It’s going to be a daily struggle.”
Colin Will, a 27-year-old resident of the small Northern California town of Blue Lake, would also have his life upended by wholesale cuts to SNAP. Colin experiences extreme anxiety attacks and agoraphobia, to the extent that he vomits with anxiety in public settings when he is forced to interact with others. His condition makes it nearly impossible to work, but he has been denied disability on the grounds that he could find employment doing work that doesn’t involve interacting with anyone else.
Will and his partner qualify for $180 per month from Cal-Fresh, California’s food stamp program. They live frugally on a small income and some assistance from their parents, and are able to buy just enough food from Costco to make it through each month.
If the able-bodied-adult requirement is strictly enforced, recipients such as Will – or uninsured disabled people without access to a doctors’ diagnoses – could easily lose their food-stamp lifeline.
“I’m absolutely terrified,” Will said. “It would drive me further toward desperation and poverty – the desperation of not knowing where your next meal would come from. These cuts are so monumentally life-changing. You feel very powerless.”
The impact of similar proposals has been documented. When Ohio ended post-2008 recession waivers that allowed able-bodied adults to access food stamps, researchers at Policy Matters Ohio found the number of households without adequate supplies of food soared.
Now, the Trump Administration hopes to take the Ohio experience and federalize it, raising the age limit for the “able-bodied” requirement to 62 and ending the waivers many states are still using.
And then there’s the harvest box proposal.
California and some other states have matching-funds programs that add a dollar for each dollar of fresh fruit and vegetables purchases from EBT cards in farmers’ markets and other local outlets, allowing recipients to double their purchase of healthy foods.
If harvest boxes replace a significant part of the EBT value – as has occurred in many Native American communities over the last several decades – that would neuter the matching funds program. And health researchers have found that Native Americans reliant on processed food are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and obesity than members of the general population.
“The food in that box isn’t healthy,” said Heidi McHugh, education and outreach coordinator at Food for People in Humboldt County, California. “Canned foods, not as fresh, nutrient value isn’t as good. Fruits in syrup. Higher sodium content.”
Health implications aside, Trump’s harvest box proposal doesn’t account for dietary restrictions or religious prohibitions on eating certain types of food. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it form of assistance, failing to address the needs of those with Halal or Kosher diets, vegetarians or vegans, or people with a variety of food allergies – or even picky eaters.
Ultimately, it robs poor people of autonomy as food consumers, recasting them as supplicants in a nutritional morality tale.
“The way we treat the least of society demonstrates to me where we’re at as a nation,” said Rachel Maes, a SNAP client and mother of four young children, all of whom are vegan.
Megan has experienced extreme depression throughout her adult life, making it hard for her to work. Her husband worked as a salesman for a steel company until the last economic downturn. After he lost his job, their income plummeted and they ended up evicted from their home.
“Food stamps was just a beautiful relief,” she said. “That was the one thing we didn’t have to worry about. We’d be able to get food, make dinner, and have that time together as a family. You can remove that from the long line of wolves at the door.”
Now, she worries that her food stamps are at risk, and that the line of wolves will soon be growing.
“Why take away a family’s opportunity to go to Whole Foods or Sprouts — healthy options?” she said. “You can go to farmers’ markets with SNAP. If our food stamps were cut in half and we were given this box, we probably wouldn’t be able to eat anything in it.”
The Trump administration, advocates say, also has launched an assault on every other federal nutritional benefit. Trump’s team and allies in Congress are pushing for cuts to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program, which serves low-income mothers and young kids.
Members of Congress also have proposed pilot programs in some states that would block grant school breakfast and lunch programs – giving a set amount to the states to spend on these programs, rather than adjusting the flow of dollars as need changes, and thus effectively limiting in scope these services.
And the administration wants to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant, which would mean the end of the national Meals on Wheels program that provides food for large numbers of often house-bound seniors, as well as the Commodities Supplemental Food Program, which provides boxes of produce to low-income elderly people.
While presidential budget proposals are rarely adopted wholesale, they do give an indication of political priorities – and they tend to shift the policy conversation in one direction or another. Attempts to financially gut entire programs may not ultimately be successful, but they move what used to be fringe ideas into the political mainstream.
That’s what has anti-hunger advocates so worried.
“The amount of cuts is just staggering – 30 percent of program funding [for SNAP] over 10 years,” said Jared Call, a nutrition policy advocate at Los Angeles-based California Food Policy Advocates. “There’s no way to do that without increasing hunger and poverty. We just think of it as unconscionable to pull the rug out like this from people already struggling with hunger and poverty.”
Poor communities in the U.S. South are already vulnerable due to the harsh cuts conservative state governments have dealt to anti-poverty programs, as well as sky-high medical uninsurance rates which contribute to poor health outcomes for low-income residents. Many poor neighborhoods in those communities are already categorized as “food deserts” – meaning fresh, nutritious food is hard to come by – and advocates are particularly worried about the impact of federal cuts.
In Darien, a small town on the Georgia coast, community development advocates at McIntosh SEED estimate that about 50 percent of households in their region rely on food stamps and other nutritional programs.
“The cuts to Meals on Wheels and the harvest boxes replacing food stamps is huge,” said Executive Director John Littles. “How do you position these families?”
The Trump administration has assembled a wrecking-ball “reform” package comprised of discredited food distribution ideas, and it’s being wielded against what is arguably the most durable part of the American safety net. Ideas like the harvest box are – at best – half-baked and poorly thought through. Who would put together and then distribute tens of millions of food boxes each month? Who would make sure they reached the right people? Who would ensure the produce wasn’t stolen off of porches, or that delivery wasn’t delayed due to bad weather?
It’s also hard to see, many say, how any of this would actually save money.
The plan could undermine local economies by taking food stamps dollars out of circulation. And low-income residents might become more vulnerable to home foreclosures, since banks are often more willing to refinance the loans of at-risk families if they can prove income sources, including a regular flow of SNAP dollars.
The proposed changes also will likely contribute to a spiraling health care cost crisis, as more low-income Americans end up in emergency rooms due to diet-related health problems.
“It’s not coherent,” said food security expert Andrew Fisher, author of the new book “Big Hunger.” “They don’t know what they’re doing. It fits into a punitive approach by the Trump administration to poor people. It is as demeaning and degrading as possible, and a way to drive poor people off the program.”
Cheryl Peterson, project manager at McIntosh SEED agrees. For her, the exercise speaks to a lack of empathy for America’s hungry and poor.
“You don’t truly understand unless you’ve walked in those shoes, lived in those areas, know people who’ve benefited from those programs,” she said. “You don’t understand what it is to not be able to feed your child a hot meal every day.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. His last Equal Voice articles were: “Is a U.S. Consumer Watchdog Neglecting Consumer Loans?” and “Census 2020: The U.S. Needs to Get It Right.” His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” published by Nation Books. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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