Punishing the Poor for Being Hungry

The Trump administration wages war on food stamps.

The United States might be the only country in the world where poverty is considered a moral failing—on the part of the victims, not the society. When conservatives are in charge of government, this judgment infiltrates policy. Republicans move repeatedly to twist regulations around an assumption that the poor don’t want to work and don’t make sound decisions. And when this bias affects children’s nutrition, it can cause lifelong impairment.

In the last year alone, the Trump administration has taken multiple shots at food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which helped feed about 40 million people last year. The latest change, one week ago, would cut benefits by $4.5 billion over five years. Even in a booming economy, one in seven households with children were considered “food insecure” last year, according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2018 survey, meaning that they weren’t sure of having enough food for everyone.

Research in the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience has documented the severe biological assaults caused by inadequate nutrition during sensitive phases of brain development. Numerous studies, compiled in a lengthy National Academy of Sciences report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, portray a devastating landscape of cognitive deficiency resulting from nutritional deprivation. The insufficiency of healthy food during a pregnant woman’s second trimester can reduce the creation of neurons, the brain’s impulse-conducting cells. Malnutrition in the third trimester restricts their maturation and retards the production of branched cells called glia.

Iron is essential to promote the growth of the brain in size and the creation of the nerve-transmitting myelin sheath around the brain’s nerve fibers. The impact of iron deficiency in a baby, therefore, never disappears, even once the deficiency is eliminated. One longitudinal study that followed children from infancy through adolescence found that they scored lower “in arithmetic achievement and written expression, motor functioning, and some specific cognitive processes such as spatial memory and selective recall.”

Teachers reported that such children displayed “more anxiety or depression, social problems, and attention problems.” It is no great leap of logic to see learning disabilities as one result of malnutrition. And a child who can’t do decently in school, who can’t follow half of what a teacher is saying, is more inclined to drop out.

For those Republicans who are moved more by self-interest than empathy, it’s worth noting that high school dropouts earn less that those with degrees, pay less in taxes, have more serious medical problems, and are at higher risk of ending up in jail.

Yet Trump’s people have sought to saddle the $68 billion-a-year SNAP program with  restrictions and cuts to the monthly benefits, which now come on debit cards with declining balances, and typically last a family only two or three weeks. Certain regulations that the Trump administration has either enacted or has openly considered would treat needy Americans with suspicion and distrust. For instance:

Officials have considered imposing a drug-testing regime on SNAP recipients (although not on farmers who receive huge federal subsidies as part of the same legislation).

The Agriculture Department, which administers the program, published a rule in July to eliminate states’ option to raise eligibility limits above the federal ceiling, which is 130 percent of the poverty line. Previously, states could get waivers to enroll families earning more if their housing and child-care expenses soaked up a big percentage of their income. More generous housing subsidies would help, because in many parts of the country, where rent can consume 50 percent or more of a family’s budget, the money for food gets squeezed. The comment period on the rule change ended in September; once adopted, it will cut off about 3 million recipients.

In last week’s action, the administration effectively took away $75 in benefits from one out of every five families by recalculating how housing and utilities costs are figured.

The Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements in this year’s budget, Congress refused, and officials have gone ahead anyway to partially evade the legislative intent. Since 1996, single able-bodied adults with no dependents, up to age 49, could get SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period unless they worked or were in job training at least 80 hours a month. States could waive the rule in areas with acute joblessness. Trump wanted to expand the requirement to age 59 and, more harmfully, apply it to those with children over six years old. That was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So last December the Agriculture Department did what it could administratively by making it much harder for states to get waivers.

In his 2019 budget, Trump proposed replacing half of a family’s cash grants with a food package of cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and other items deemed good for them. Sending such packages to 40 million people would have been so costly and impractical that the idea collapsed of its own weight. But the notion seemed borne of a patronizing attitude toward the poor, who suffer from a disparaging stereotype that they do not act responsibly.

Clinics treating childhood malnutrition see a broad array of causes. Lack of money is the centerpiece, but lack of knowledge about healthy eating can also contribute to some cases. Health providers find that some parents don’t know how to cook with relatively inexpensive ingredients. New immigrants unfamiliar with American food can be fooled by ads into thinking that Coke and Cheetos are healthy. So can Americans themselves. Lots of junk food is cheap and filling, hence the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which can be a sign of malnutrition.

Supermarkets with fresh, healthy food are scarce in many low-income neighborhoods. A child’s food allergies can be baffling without the funds and information required to have a large assortment of choices on hand. Single parents doing shift work can’t keep track of what their kids are being fed by multiple caregivers. Nor do they usually have the orderly life that allows them to sit children down calmly to feed them, or have a regular family meal.

In other words, childhood malnutrition is created at the confluence of problems and disabilities that magnify and reinforce one another. They must all be addressed. The cognitive impairment that results cannot be attacked by a country that keeps electing officials who entangle the safety net in a set of punitive impulses.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven books, and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report.