Unless it comes to punishing poor people. In which case, even the economy has to take a back seat.
Just in time for Christmas, the Trump administration finalized the first of three new rules requiring more people to go hungry. This first rule will dump about 700,000 Americans from the food stamp rolls (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) by tightening work requirements.
For decades, the federal food stamp program has had strict work requirements. Non-disabled adults without custody of minor children can receive no more than three months of food benefits within a three-year period, unless they meet 20-hour-per-week work requirements. Even in a time of historically low national unemployment, this can still be a high bar for people with less education, unstable housing, little control over their work hours, mental or physical health challenges, unreliable transportation or criminal records.
As a result, federal law has allowed states to get temporary waivers for this three-month cutoff in areas where joblessness is higher.
Both red and blue states have gotten these waivers over the years, using them to help residents in areas with fewer job opportunities — for instance, people in rural areas. Today, 36 states have waivers in place for parts of their state where unemployment is highest, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Last year, in a Republican-led push, Congress considered ratcheting up SNAP’s work requirements but ultimately decided against it. So instead, the Trump administration simply decided to take matters into its own hands by making it much more difficult for states to apply for these waivers.
For instance, while it used to be the case that a state could receive a waiver if it had experienced a sudden and sharp increase in unemployment, it can now qualify only if its average unemployment rate over the past 24 months is both 20 percent above the national average and also at least 6 percent.
There are a few reasons you might consider this misguided. Some are moral, others economic.
“SNAP is supposed to be an anti-hunger program, full stop,” says Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois economist who specializes in food insecurity.
And though helping or encouraging people to experience the “dignity of work” is a laudable goal, he and other experts I spoke to say there is little evidence that food stamp receipt discourages work. Most food-stamp beneficiaries already have jobs; among those who don’t, or who don’t work sufficient hours, it is difficult to believe that the only thing keeping them from meeting this requirement is that it doesn’t suck enough to be poor.
The population affected by this new rule, after all, involves the neediest — on average, they make just 18 percent of the poverty line — so it’s not as though food stamps enable them to live a life of comfort and convenience. Especially when you consider that their average monthly SNAP benefits are $165, or about $1.83 per meal.
Then there are the macroeconomic considerations.
One of the selling points of SNAP, like other means-tested safety-net programs, is that it is countercyclical. When recession hits and people lose work, SNAP rolls swell with little to no intervention needed from policymakers. This helps struggling families, yes, but it also blunts the blow of the recession to the overall economy and helps it recover faster. For this reason, food stamps are called an “automatic fiscal stabilizer.”
In fact, SNAP spending during a recession has among the biggest bang for the buck of all fiscal measures. For every additional dollar spent on food stamps, overall economic activity rises by as much as $1.50, according to research from the Agriculture Department.
A recession may or may not be imminent, but we’re late enough in the business cycle that we should be thinking about a plan for the next one. In fact, some policymakers already are. Presidential candidate Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), for instance, has proposed ramping up these safety-net programs so that they automatically kick in with greater force when the economy needs them most, rather than waiting for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to act.
By contrast, the Trump administration is pushing people off the rolls and making it more difficult for state policymakers to respond the next time there is a sudden spike in unemployment. Which means Trump officials aren’t just exporting anti-poor antipathy to the states; they’re exporting Washington’s policy gridlock, too.