The Ripple Effects of Taking SNAP Benefits From One Person

A new Trump-administration rule will cut food assistance for nearly 700,000 Americans, also affecting many of their relatives and housemates.

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Last week, the Trump administration approved a new rule that is estimated to cut off nearly 700,000 unemployed people from food assistance provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). The rule, which makes it harder for states to waive the federal program’s work requirements in areas of high unemployment, targets a group of people known, in the bureaucratic language of public-assistance programs, as ABAWDs—“able-bodied adults without dependents.”

Congress rejected similar cuts to SNAP in the 2018 Farm Bill, but this time the Trump administration is going around the legislative process by cutting unemployed people from the rolls through administrative rule changes. (The rule is set to go into effect on April 1.) The administration paints ABAWDs as a group of people who can justifiably be cut off from assistance because they ought to be working. Announcing the rule change, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release, “We need everyone who can work, to work.” A representative of the USDA assured reporters that vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and people who are disabled would not be affected.

Critics of the new rule note that work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance. Many of these people share their benefits with their family and social networks, including children and elderly family members. The ripple effects of the planned cuts will hurt this larger group of people too.

I saw this firsthand as a researcher studying SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013. During the recession that began in 2008, New York City was one of the only places in the country that enforced SNAP work requirements, which mandated that single, unemployed men and women work at least 80 hours a month to qualify for assistance. I ran a food-stamp outreach program in a food pantry and soup kitchen in Brooklyn during this time, and people who lived in the area would often come to me with questions about or problems with their benefits, including when they were cut off for failing to meet work requirements.

I met lots of men who used their SNAP benefits to feed their children. Many of them lived with their kids, but many did not, and the government categorized this latter group as single adults without dependents. Among the people I encountered, these men reported some of the most severe problems with hunger, because they used their meager benefits to fulfill family obligations that the welfare administration did not recognize.

For instance, one father of four who had lost his job and was enrolled in SNAP used almost his entire $190 food-stamp budget each month to buy groceries for his children, even though they lived with their mother. He ate at several soup kitchens and went to food pantries so he would be able to buy more for his kids. As he put it to me when I interviewed him for my recently published book about SNAP, “I’ve basically been starving the past three days so my kids could have something to eat. A lot of times I eat a honey bun and some [chips] before bed and that’s it. I’m starving now so they can have something later.” (As is customary in academic research, he and my other research subjects have been kept anonymous to protect their identity.)

Another father I interviewed who was also out of work worried that if his ex-wife did not have enough food in the house where she was raising their son, they might draw the attention of Child Protective Services. He used most of his monthly SNAP benefits, which also added up to $190, buying food for his son. “I will spend whatever I can to keep food in the house, because if [Child Protective Services] comes in, they can take him if there’s not a certain amount of food there—a gallon of milk, cereal, eggs, protein, vitamins,” he told me.

It is not just children who will feel the effects of the upcoming cuts to SNAP. One 48-year-old single man who frequented the food pantry lived with his elderly mother when I spoke with him six years ago. He had worked a variety of low-income jobs but had recently been out of work for more than a year. He was cut off from SNAP after his unemployment benefits ran out; he and his mom had been pooling his benefits with her Social Security checks to make ends meet. He cooked for his mom, who was diabetic, and took her to all of her doctor appointments. Cutting him off from SNAP meant that both of them became more dependent on food from the food pantry. With less choice about what they ate, his mother had a harder time managing her diabetes.

For people who were out of work and staying with friends or relatives, access to SNAP meant they could contribute groceries to the household. For many, this was what allowed them to stay in the good graces of their housemates and not end up without shelter.

The issues I saw in New York will play out nationally under the new cuts, and the Trump administration’s stated rationale—that able-bodied unemployed SNAP recipients should find jobs instead of depending on the government—obscures these consequences. It gives the impression that the program has to be protected from lazy, unemployed freeloaders while ignoring, say, the people caring for an elderly parent while out of work and the dads who are looking for work but still trying to make sure their kids have something to eat.

This is yet another illustration of how welfare policy (and public policy more generally) has helped establish two-parent, mom-and-dad nuclear families as the norm while overlooking the multitude of supportive family arrangements that exist across households and generations, particularly in low-income and queer communities. In this case, the result is more hunger and hardship for the members of low-income families who are doing their best to make sure everyone is cared for.