This story’s headline has been corrected. A quote from Rep. Jodey Arrington’s remarks at a congressional hearing has also been added.
The biblical passage, 2 Thessalonians 3-10, was a rebuttal to one of the hearing’s expert witnesses, a representative of the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. (He referenced Leviticus.) It is also a familiar refrain to anyone who has watched past debates about SNAP.
House Republicans have historically cited the verse — “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” — as justification for cutting some adults’ SNAP benefits. Arrington referenced the verse in a discussion about increasing the work requirements for unemployed adults on the food stamp program. But critics say that advances a pernicious myth about the unemployed who receive SNAP.
The verse in question applies specifically to people who can work or otherwise contribute to society but choose not to, said theologians from several denominations who spoke to The Post. There is a perception, among some voters and lawmakers, that many adult SNAP recipients are exactly this sort of “freeloader.”
But policy experts say that is not the case. Many unemployed adults on SNAP simply cannot work, they say. Those include the mentally ill, the borderline disabled and veterans.
"I did hear Mr. Protas, your opening remarks, where you quoted Leviticus, I believe -- and I think that’s a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives," Arrington said. "But there’s also, you know, in the Scripture, tells us in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10 he says, uh, ‘for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ And then he goes on to say ‘we hear that some among you are idle' ... I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements."
The debate comes at a time of increased Republican concern about work requirements and welfare programs. The failed Republican repeal-and-replace health-care plan included such requirements for Medicaid recipients; House Speaker Paul D. Ryan also championed them. And earlier this week, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) introduced a bill that would prevent the secretary of agriculture from granting temporary SNAP work-requirement waivers to states with high rates of unemployment.
“No one is suggesting that people who don’t want to work should get benefits,” said Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at MAZON who testified at the hearing. “There are stereotypes about SNAP recipients and myths about the program … that are very harmful to people in need who could take advantage of it.”
Stereotypes about people in need of help are, of course, almost as old as Judeo-Christian scripture itself.
MAZON’s senior engagement officer, Rabbi Erin Glazer, points to Hebrew Bible passages that instruct believers not to judge those in need of their help.
But as entitlement spending has increased, Americans have grown increasingly suspicious of people who use the social safety net. And that suspicion has fallen largely on a group called unemployed “ABAWDs” — able-bodied adults without dependents, and without steady jobs.
This population represents only a small minority of SNAP users. According to the Department of Agriculture, nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, seniors and people with disabilities. Of the remaining third, the vast majority are employed. According to the USDA, only 14 percent of all SNAP participants work less than 30 hours per week.
Contrary to popular opinion, both liberal and conservative economists agree that there is no “welfare cliff” with SNAP. Because benefits decrease incrementally with increased income, the program does not disincentivize employment.
But the 6 million or so who are not employed receive a great deal of attention. This is a diverse population, experts say, who face a variety of barriers to employment, as well as an array of state and federal work requirements.
Local surveys of SNAP users have shown that many adults who are not working have recently been released from jail — or are homeless, veterans, noncustodial parents, people with undiagnosed mental illnesses and teenagers aging out of the foster care system.
Still more may lack the skills or education needed to obtain work in their community — particularly if their community has a high unemployment rate, said Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
USDA can grant state waivers that drop the work requirements in areas of high unemployment, but many states have lost or dropped their waivers since the recession.
As a result, many adults on SNAP who want to work effectively can’t.
“There are a lot of barriers that need to be addressed first,” Dean said.
USDA is working on this question of which recipients can work and which can't. Since 1996, the SNAP program has set a three-month time limit on unemployed ABAWDs' eligibility. If they don’t get a job within three months of starting benefits, they’re kicked off the program, even if they're actively seeking employment. USDA has also funded state-run job fairs, work training and other interventions to encourage SNAP users to find employment, though availability and effectiveness vary widely by location.
Some states have also used USDA funds to establish even stricter work programs than those at the federal level.
Nonetheless, there remains a persistent misconception — embodied by the recent political invocation Thessalonians verse — that many unemployed SNAP participants simply don’t “want” to work.
Arrington’s office did not return a request for further explanation on how he intended the quote to be understood. But the freshman Congressman has said that his Presbyterian faith “motivates” his work: He made headlines in his hometown papers for holding a prayer session in his new Capitol Hill office shortly after being sworn in, and his brother Yancey is a pastor in Houston.
The verse also makes regular appearances in the conservative blogosphere.
In 2015, the far-right Breitbart News misquoted Pope Francis in a post that implied the Catholic leader sought to keep food from people who did not work.
The English transcript of the pope’s remarks make it clear that he said no such thing and most Judeo-Christian faith leaders agree that 2 Thessalonians applies narrowly to people who can work but choose not to.
The passage, written by Saint Paul, was not addressed to the poor or hungry generally, said the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor and the president of the faith-based anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. It was written to a specific sect of early Christians, who had abandoned many aspects of their regular lives because they believed the apocalypse was imminent.
“The sin is sloth, indolence, inactivity,” echoed Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school. “This is not an issue of inability. I don’t think it has been, in the history of the church.”
Of course, as long as politics and religion remain entwined, Americans will likely see incidents like this. And religious groups are deeply involved in poverty and welfare questions. The day after Arrington quoted Thessalonians, more than two dozen leaders from a diverse group of major Christian denominations led a prayer vigil on Capitol Hill to protest cuts to the safety net.
MAZON, meanwhile, continues to advocate for programs that help unemployed SNAP recipients obtain jobs, rather than policies that penalize them for failing to find work. That, said Rabbi Glazer, is her main takeaway from Scripture.
“The common refrain, repeated across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred texts, is that we must care for the most vulnerable,” she said. “To hold up three particular words and use it to create policy? That doesn’t work.”
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