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.