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The Trump administration plans to kick 700,000 off food stamps during a pandemic

Although a growing number of people will lose their jobs because of a slowing economy, the government will still impose strict work requirements for SNAP.

Harlem residents choose free groceries at the Food Bank For New York City on December 11, 2013, in New York City.
John Moore/Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak may be an economic and public health crisis, but that isn’t stopping the Trump administration from going through with its plan to kick nearly 700,000 people off food stamps.

Starting April 1, the administration will tighten work requirements for those seeking the help of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Able-bodied people between the ages of 18 and 49 who aren’t raising children will have to work at least 20 hours a week to become eligible for SNAP. That’s a requirement that many states have been able to waive until the Trump administration stepped in.

It doesn’t help that SNAP assistance is generally the only government help these people — whose income is at 92 percent below the poverty line — can get, as they don’t qualify for other programs that provide for the elderly, disabled, or parents, according to CNN. On average, this group earns about $2,250 a year and receives about $165 in monthly SNAP benefits. That’s only about $1.80 per meal, CNN reports, but it can go a long way for those in low-wage jobs or who are underemployed.

Under the new rules, though, nonworking adults will no longer even have access to that $1.80. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-TX) pressed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on the cruelty of the timeline, questioning why it had to be implemented during an economic crisis.

“Really, it’s a cruel rule, taking food out of the mouths of hungry individuals,” she said. “Why can’t we just postpone or delay this at least until this critical moment is over?”

That hasn’t stopped the government from pushing through with its plan, even though job stability is rarer than ever as the spread of Covid-19 has led to social distancing, hitting low-wage service industry jobs hard, said Prof. Don Moynihan, who leads Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

“It’s been a unilateral approach to cutting the social safety net,” he told Vox. “And it’s been done in a way that is opaque and not transparent — simply adding more red tape to the programs. That approach is going to make it not just harder for people to get access to benefits, it’s also going to make government feel more dysfunctional to them.”

These changes affect the most vulnerable, especially during a slowing economy

Although the government estimates that 700,000 people will be affected by the rule change, Lauren Bauer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, reports that the numbers would more realistically be 1.3 million to 1.5 million — even before the Covid-19 outbreak, according to BuzzFeed News. And unfortunately, the number of those who need food assistance will continue to grow during a slowing economy.

A growing concern is that those who work in low-wage service industries, particularly bars and restaurants, won’t be able to take on enough shifts, or may even get laid off, as people practice social distancing and avoid going out to eat and drink in crowded areas. Yet without a job, they’ll be unable to stay eligible for SNAP, even though they’ll need the assistance the most during their unemployment, Moynihan pointed out.

The work requirement could also force employees to continue going to their public-facing jobs, even when they are sick, because they cannot afford to stay at home when they have little job stability, he added. This could further spread the disease, contrary to what the government wants.

Overall, Moynihan described the government’s plan to move ahead with the rule changes as a “poor choice” driven by conservative aides who have long opposed government assistance programs.

“It certainly seems to be a self-defeating addiction to an ideological agenda,” he said. “You have a group of policymakers in the Trump administration, who really believe that the social safety net is too large, and have been finding a way to reduce it any way that they can. And right now, that priority of cutting the social safety net remains more important for them than helping people and producing economic stimulus at a time of economic downturn.”

Despite such criticism, agriculture secretary Perdue thinks that “good cause waivers” are the government’s answer to work requirements during a public health crisis, according to BuzzFeed News. The waiver allows the program to overlook an employee’s missed days under the right circumstances: In the case of a Covid-19 outbreak, workers could theoretically receive a waiver if they fall ill or if their workplace is disrupted by the virus.

“Whether you are sick or your job says you can’t come to work, the good cause will eliminate need for work requirements under this rule,” Perdue said in a statement to the publication.

The problem is that these waivers are a burden for both the workers and the states that have to process them. States will have to individually approve each waiver, which could easily overwhelm the system considering the scope of the disease. And the definition of “good cause” is so arbitrary that it raises the question of the consistency in rulings.

The proper route of action is to drop the work requirements for SNAP, especially when there’s a possibility that more people will begin to lose their jobs, Moynihan said. As of now, the measures taken by the Trump administration are doing little to help the economy or the people affected by it, he said.

“I think the Trump administration needs to reverse course on what’s been a disastrous policy,” Moynihan said. “It feels like the economy is heading towards an iceberg and the Trump administration has already burned the lifeboats.”

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