With Trump’s proposal to gut federal food assistance by $192 billion — much of which would come out of the shopping carts of the working class — the president is once again proving his willingness to shaft those who supported him most.
Contrary to the racially-tinged stereotype that Americans who rely upon the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program — formerly known as food stamps — are primarily “inner city,” liberal people of color, the reality is that many SNAP recipients are white, rural and suburban Americans who voted for Trump; the president won eight of the ten states with the highest percentage of SNAP recipients.
Not surprisingly, the parts of the nation with the highest rates of SNAP usage tend to be those with the highest levels of poverty, hunger, and food insecurity. In 2015, 42 million Americans lived in households classified by the federal government as “food insecure,” meaning they could not always afford the food they needed. Of those, more lived in rural areas and suburbs areas than in cities.
The stereotype that hungry people and SNAP recipients don’t want to work is false, but it has been reiterated by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director. 16 million Americans work but still struggle with hunger, and nearly half of all SNAP recipients are in families with at least one person currently working (in low-wage jobs), while most of the rest have an adult temporarily unemployed. In fact, 90 percent of adult SNAP recipients with children are employed the year before and the year after obtaining these benefits. Like unemployment insurance, workers pay for the SNAP program through their taxes when they are employed, and use the program when they are temporarily down on their luck. It is not welfare; it work support and social insurance.
Not only does SNAP slash hunger and enable families to afford healthier foods, it lifts more than ten million Americans, including five million children, above the poverty line, at the same time it has the lowest fraud rate in program history: only about one percent. (We’d all be thrilled if fraud on Wall Street and among defense contractors was as low as one percent!)
SNAP is designed to be counter-cyclical, meaning that it increases when the economy is weak and decreases when the economy is strong; over the last decade, it’s worked spectacularly well in that regard. While participation skyrocketed during the recession, preventing mass starvation, as the recession waned, and as unemployment dropped and wages increased, participation decreased significantly. Just in the past four years, as the economic recovery accelerated, SNAP rolls fell by more than five million, an eleven percent decrease.
Unlike food programs in more statist nations like India or Mexico, in which food is distributed directly by the government to hungry residents, SNAP is a voucher program that enables low-income consumers to shop directly at private sector entities. Given that most food consumed in the U.S. is grown and processed domestically, SNAP is one of the best ways for the government to boost the U.S. economy, generating $1.8 billion of U.S. economic activity for every billion dollars spent on the program. SNAP redemption at farmers markets has skyrocketed over the last decade, both boosting family health and aiding small farmers. SNAP is the ultimate “win-win” program.
It is no wonder that, in a recent congressional hearing, President Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, said that SNAP is “very important, effective,”adding, “As far as I’m concerned, we have no proposed changes. You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.”
Yet just a few days later, Trump threw Perdue under the tractor by proposing $192 billion in cuts to the program, a nearly 30 percent reduction, which — if passed by Congress — would exceed even the draconian cuts championed by Ronald Reagan. To make matters worse, the cuts to SNAP and other anti-poverty program would not fund serious deficit reduction, but rather would mostly pay for yet another round of massive tax cuts for the wealthiest.
The cuts are as cruel as they are counter-productive, since an overwhelming majority of households on SNAP have members that are children, disabled, and/or senior citizens. The benefits are already extraordinarily meager, equaling less than $1.40 per person per meal. If even some of these cuts became law, the U.S. would see the greatest wave of mass hunger since the Great Depression.
Making America hungry again is the exact opposite of making it great. No superpower in the history of the world has remained a superpower if it has failed to feed its own people. Children must be nourished enough to learn — to be schooled, you must be fueled. Fighting hunger is central to every major religious and secular ethical tradition; a nation that allows one in seven of its residents to struggle with hunger is not a moral nation.
Given that SNAP slashes hunger, boosts nutrition, aids the overall economy, lifts families above the poverty line, improves our national security, and strengthens our country’s moral standing, concerned Americans must fight our guts out to preserve, and even expand, the program.
As I argued in a previous piece for Washington Monthly, one of the best ways to build public support for the program is to modernize it to reduce bureaucracy using modern technology, while making is easier for struggling families to obtain aid.
But we must also remember that few Americans in poverty think the long-term answer to their dreams is merely a bigger, better safety net. We should also enact an assets empowerment agenda to enable more families to earn, learn, and save their way out of poverty so that more families can afford to buy all their own food while meeting all other costs of living.
The single best way to slash hunger is to slash poverty. But, as we do so, we must first ensure that all Americans have enough to eat.