States around the country are attempting to make it harder for needy families to access federal food-assistance programs.
The moves come even as more than 20 million adults reported their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the week ending June 7, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Federal food assistance for low-income Americans was expanded during the pandemic, with broad bipartisan support for removing barriers to programs such as SNAP (food stamps), WIC (for mothers and young children) and the benefit-card program that took the place of free and reduced-price school meals when schools were not in session.
But even as the Biden administration and the Agriculture Department, which administers these food-assistance programs, discuss extending additional benefits beyond the pandemic and recession, Republican-controlled state legislatures are balking.
Republicans in Congress and in these states point to a steadily improving economy and the $5 trillion in federal stimulus that has already been spent supporting families and companies during the crisis.
“There are many unfilled job openings out there, and to the extent that any program holds people back from seeking employment, that’s something states want to counteract,” said Angela Rachidi, a Rowe scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “There is evidence to suggest that SNAP reduces employment. And during the pandemic [the USDA] allowed flexibility in long-standing integrity measures, so it’s perfectly appropriate for states to reintroduce those now.”
Eight states, from Alaska to Wisconsin, have allowed their states’ covid-19 disaster emergency orders to expire, cutting off aid programs even before the federal cutoff. Other states have introduced legislation to make these assistance benefits harder to get.
Republicans nationwide have been criticizing unemployment insurance and benefits such as SNAP, saying they are causing labor market difficulties and providing an incentive for Americans to stay home and avoid returning to work.
The idea is, by removing the safety net, people would be more eager to fill jobs in industries that are facing worker shortages. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell mentioned on Wednesday during a news conference that the expiration of federal unemployment benefits over the summer months is expected to push more workers back into the labor force.
Some state legislators are also concerned about the integrity of the programs, pointing to widespread misuse and fraud, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition.
Vollinger, however, said that a move to an electronic transfer system, like a debit card, has given the USDA a strong data tool to spot red flags and that widespread fraud has never been documented. Meanwhile, she said, reducing benefits “is not smart economics.”
“We’ve heard it from both Powell and [Treasury Secretary Janet L.] Yellen, that in order to have a robust and equitable recovery there will be a need for a continued fiscal stimulus, and one piece of that is to have additional SNAP benefits,” Vollinger said. She says that beyond worsening food insecurity, states like Ohio will deprive themselves of a “countercyclical tool” to help boost their economies. According to a USDA study, benefits to the local economy extend beyond the initial money provided to recipients.
In the Ohio state budget, Republicans inserted last-minute changes to SNAP. They now require recipients to report any shifts in income over $500 within 30 days and document child-support agreements. The law also now requires new reviews of assets, meaning those with as much as $2,250 in checking or savings accounts or those who own cars worth more than $4,650 could lose benefits. The changes were drawn from a bill sponsored by state Sen. Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster).
“There is never a wrong time to fight back against fraud, especially within our public benefits systems. Fraud and waste are never acceptable,” Schaffer wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “No one loses benefits that needs help and there is no change in the eligibility criteria. The goal of this legislation is to simply weed out the fraud and waste within the State of Ohio’s public benefit systems. In doing so, more funding and resources will be available to Ohioans who truly need this assistance the most.”
Hope Lane-Gavin, public policy and external affairs associate at the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit think tank in Cleveland, said that Schaffer has been working toward preventing fraud in public benefits for some time. Her organization did not anticipate the asset and income limits and child-support requirements in the state budget bill. She said excluding low-income Americans with cars valued at over $5,000 is wrongheaded, because cars are essential tools for re-employment and upward mobility.
“We were taken off guard, we did not expect this in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. She pointed out that some states, including Virginia, don’t count cars when they look at those qualifying for food assistance.
Ohio is just one of the states trying to limit access to the federal safety net.
In Arizona, lawmakers have introduced a bill to reduce SNAP enrollment by restricting household income levels, mandating child support and requiring more paperwork to repeatedly document eligibility for the program or face losing benefits.
In Missouri, lawmakers would newly require SNAP recipients to prove they have asked for child support to get or keep benefits — which can in some cases put mothers in close contact with former abusers, advocates said. A separate bill would impose work requirements for SNAP participants.
This spring, Arkansas lawmakers enacted a law that prevents the state from giving unemployed workers extra time on SNAP, a flexibility the USDA gave to states because of the pandemic. Another newly enacted law will require additional eligibility verifications and extra paperwork for Medicaid and SNAP recipients.
In both Montana and Mississippi, lawmakers introduced bills adding paperwork requirements making it difficult to apply for or stay on food assistance.
The federal SNAP program, which serves an average of 40.3 million people per month, is often misunderstood by state legislatures, according to Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Some states jump in and offer state bills that require the agency to do something. It’s often not from a place of understanding, more cookie-cutter or template bills that don’t really address specific needs, but they can sound like they are dealing with program integrity,” Bolen says, adding that frequently boilerplate language for these state bills is drawn from right-wing advocacy groups such as the Foundation of Government Accountability or American Legislative Exchange Council.
Requiring participants to report every tiny change in income, Bolen said, has been shown to be “useless work — and a lot of it — a death by a thousand paper cuts,” and work requirements have been proven mostly to dramatically cut participation in the program.
Noreen Springstead, executive director of WhyHunger, a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger, said the pandemic has illuminated that food banks and food charities can meet people’s immediate food needs, but that they are not a longer-term solution to widespread hunger.
“Increases in SNAP, bolstering WIC and Pandemic EBT actually worked; people feel more settled,” she said. “Yet here we are trying to divide people yet again. We blame low-wage workers when we never talk about low-wage employers.”