For a period last year after he lost his food stamps, Tim Keefe, an out-of-work and homeless Navy veteran, used his military training to catch, skin and eat squirrels, roasting the animals over an open fire outside the tent he pitched in frigid Augusta, Maine.
“I was eating what I could find, and borrowed from friends and strangers,” Keefe said in testimony to the Maine legislature. “There were many times ... when I would go two or even three days without food. If one was inclined to lose a lot of weight, I could recommend this diet wholeheartedly.”
What Americans get wrong about food stamps, according to an expert who’s spent 20 years researching them
Now the Trump administration in its first major budget proposal has proposed more stringent work requirements — similar to those in effect in Maine and other states — to limit eligibility for food stamps and a host of other benefits as part of sweeping cuts to anti-poverty programs.
The White House budget proposal, due to be unveiled on Tuesday, would reduce spending on anti-poverty programs from food stamps to tax credits and welfare payments by $274 billion over a decade, largely by tightening eligibility for these programs, according to administration officials. With additional reforms on Medicaid and disability insurance, total safety net cuts would top $1 trillion over 10 years.
Making low-income Americans work to qualify for so-called welfare programs is a key theme of the budget. “If you are on food stamps and you are able bodied, we need you to go to work,” said budget director Mick Mulvaney during a White House briefing on Monday.
He said the strengthened requirements in the budget focuses on putting the 6.8 million unemployed or underemployed Americans back to work. “There is a dignity to work,” he said, “and there’s a necessity to work to help the country succeed.”
The White House did not offer details Monday on how the work requirements would be implemented, other than saying it would be “phased in” for able-bodied adults without dependent children.
The White House estimated the combined reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, would generate nearly $193 billion in savings over a decade.
In addition to SNAP reforms, Trump will propose taking the earned income and child tax credits away from undocumented immigrants working in the United States, many of whom pay taxes or have American born-children. That reform alone would save $40 billion over a decade, according to the White House.
Anti-poverty advocates say the White House could implement its desired reforms to SNAP in two ways: require recipients to work more than the current minimum of 20 hours a week, or cut the unemployment waivers in areas with high joblessness rates.
The influential Heritage Foundation, as well as a number of House conservatives have championed a crackdown on waivers, leading many anti-poverty advocates to conclude that is the most likely way the White House would implement its proposed reforms.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has asked the White House to prioritize work requirements, said the Trump administration needs to “go after” the four million able-bodied adults without dependents in the food stamp program.
“You say to them, ‘We will give you assistance, but come to the office one day a week to do job search or community service,’” Rector said. “When Maine did that, they found almost immediately that their caseload dropped 85 percent.”
Critics say such a change could endanger people like Keefe, a veteran who has been unable to find a job after injuring his wrist on the job at a plow factory in Rockland, Maine. As a result, Keefe now is medically unable to lift more than 25 pounds — which disqualifies him from other work in manufacturing.
The Navy veteran was one of several thousand former food stamp recipients who lost benefits when Maine, in 2015, declined to renew its waiver and reinstated statewide work requirements. He has spent much of the last year living in a tent.
“I don’t wanna worry no one,” said Keefe, who recently testified to Maine’s Committee on Health and Human Services about the impact the work requirement had on him. But, he added: “I hope they understand that people fall through the cracks.”
The Trump administration is considering other changes to SNAP. While details remain sparse, Mulvaney said the federal government would be asking states to share in the costs for the food stamps program, through a phased-in “state match” so they have a “little more skin in the game.”
“We believe in the social safety net. We absolutely do,” Mulvaney said. "What we've done is not to try and remove the safety net for folks who need it, but to try and figure out if there’s folks who don't need it that need to be back in the workforce."
Suspending employment waivers would hit hard in areas with high unemployment such as southern and central California, where the unemployment rate can spike as high as 19 percent, as well as cities such as Detroit and Scranton, Pa., where joblessness remains rampant. The change would also hit hard in large portions of New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Idaho and Michigan.
“It’s unconscionable, cruel and ineffective,” said Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at MAZON, a national anti-hunger organization. “I’m honestly not sure what their goal is.”
Critics say the changes in unemployment waivers would be devastating for Native American families living on reservations in North and South Dakota, Arizona and Montana where there is chronic poverty and high unemployment.
“The President’s budget proposal will force kids in rural America to go hungry while wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on misplaced priorities like a wall that won’t keep us safe,” said Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), in a statement to the Post. “Parents in Montana and across Indian Country should not have to choose between food for their tables, gas for their cars, and shoes for their kids.”
The number of Americans on SNAP remains high, however. In 2016, 44 million Americans receive the benefits, compared to just 28 million people in 2008.
“They have not come down like we would expect them to do,” Mulvaney said. “That raises a very valid question: Are there folks on SNAP who shouldn’t be?”
Anti-hunger advocates argue that, generally speaking, there are not. Because SNAP benefits decrease gradually with increased income, there is no incentive for people to avoid work to get benefits — a phenomenon economists call the “welfare cliff.” And benefits are too small for people to subsist on them without working: The average food stamp benefit was $465 a month for a family of four in 2015. Most people are on the program for between seven and nine months on average.
“The notion that people would prefer not to work to get that benefit, give me a break,” said U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, (D-Mass.) a longtime anti-hunger advocate. “This is a lousy and rotten thing to do to poor people. They look at SNAP as an ATM to pay for their other priorities.”
Additionally, three quarters of households using SNAP contain children, seniors, or people with disabilities, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Without SNAP, the country would have had 3 to 4.5 million more people in poverty during the recession, she said.
More than a quarter of able-bodied adults without dependents on SNAP do not have a high school diploma, Waxman said; another 57 percent don’t have college degrees — putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to finding work.
A number are also veterans, young adults aging out of the foster care system, and felons recently released from jail. SNAP recipients who cannot find work, for these or other reasons, are supposed to attend job training programs — but they’re not widely available because of lack of funding.
“This is the trick. On the one hand, you want people to do something, when in fact a lot of folks may not realistically be able to find a job,” Waxman said. “Most states don’t want to put the money in. This is a dilemma that we’re in.”
The evidence that stricter work requirements actually cause people to get jobs is mixed, at best. In Kansas, which reinstated the requirements in October 2014, 40 percent of unemployed adults were still unemployed a year after being kicked off SNAP. Among former SNAP participants who lost benefits, the average annual income was only $5,562, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing think tank based in Florida.
Progress has also been hotly debated in Maine, a state that conservatives regularly hold up as evidence that stricter work-requirements are effective. When the state dropped its waiver in 2015, the number of unemployed adults in the program immediately fell by nearly 80 percent.
But a May 2016 report by the state found that nearly 60 percent of those affected individuals did not report any income in the year after they left the program — suggesting they were still unemployed or underemployed a year later.
On the national level, Michael Tanner, a senior fellow who focuses on social welfare issues at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said he doesn’t think similar mandates will have a huge impact on moving large numbers of recipients into employment or result in significant budget savings. Most SNAP recipients who can work are already working, and many of those who are not meet one of the various exemptions such as being disabled.
“It’s making a statement that Republicans think people who are on public assistance should be doing all they can to get off,” Tanner said, “and that means working whenever possible.”
McGovern, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, said he was surprised to learn about the White House proposal given Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s testimony before the committee last week saying he did not favor any major changes to the food stamps program.
“It’s been a very important, effective program,” Perdue said, according to a recording of the hearing. “As far as I’m concerned we have no proposed changes. You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.”
The Trump administration is advocating other “fixes” to the safety net, as well. The budget will also propose requiring people to have a Social Security number to collect tax credits. Mulvaney said it is unfair that taxpayers support immigrants working illegally in this country.
“How do I go to somebody who pays their taxes and say, ‘Look, I want you to give this earned income tax credit to somebody who is working here illegally? That’s not defensible,” Mulvaney said.
Rector, of the Heritage Foundation, said he also hopes Trump will prioritize work requirements for those receiving housing subsidies. Mulvaney did not address that on Monday.
Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said the majority of Americans receiving housing subsidies are elderly, disabled or already include someone who works. Of the remaining households, nearly half include a preschool child or an older child or adult with a disability who needs the supervision of a caregiver.
Establishing work requirements for the remaining six percent of households who are ‘work able’ but not employed would require state and local housing agencies already facing funding shortfalls to establish cumbersome monitoring and enforcement systems for a very narrow segment of rental assistance recipients, she said.
“This is neither cost effective nor a solution to the very real issue of poverty impacting millions of families living in subsidized housing or in need,” Yentel said in a statement to the Post.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated the average annual income for SNAP participants in Kansas who had lost and then found jobs was $5,562. That figure applied to all SNAP participants who had lost the benefit.