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How cuts to food stamp program could increase ‘poor outcomes’ for the food insecure

The Trump administration is making some major changes to the food stamp program, known as SNAP. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a new rule expected to end access to the benefit for nearly 700,000 people by enforcing tougher work standards and limiting exemptions. The Urban Institute’s Elaine Waxman joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration is making some major changes to the food stamp program, known as SNAP. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a new rule expected to end food stamps for nearly 700,000 people. Now known as SNAP, the food stamp program helps feed more than 36 million Americans.

    The new measure is the first of three initiatives to curtail those benefits. The administration, which is scaling back the size of social safety net programs, says the changes will save the government billions of dollars.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the new rule enforces tougher work requirements. And states also will have less flexibility to exempt able-bodied adults without children or dependents from those requirements.

    The other proposed changes will affect even more people, dropping roughly three million people from getting food aid when all is said and done.

    As he announced the latest rule, which goes into effect next April, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he's trying to restore the system to — quote — "provide assistance through difficult times, not a way of life."

    Elaine Waxman studies this program and has done her own analyses for the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

    Elaine Waxman, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the argument from the administration is: The economy is doing very well. It's improved dramatically. Unemployment is at historic lows. Many of these able-bodied adults without children or dependents don't need this assistance anymore.

    What do you say to that?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    It's true the economy has improved a great deal, but not for all people and not in all places.

    And national or even state level unemployment statistics can mask a great deal of variation in opportunity. States have had the ability to apply for waivers from these work requirements and time limits when they felt there were insufficient jobs. And it will be much harder to do that now.

    Some of the individuals affected by this change are among the most vulnerable. They have very, very low incomes. They often work in unstable jobs. And unlike the characterization of the secretary today, they don't use SNAP as a way of life. They turn to SNAP during periods of unstable employment. And the vast majority of them work when they can.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just to clarify a point here, the definition of able-bodied adults, this implies it will only affect single adults. Is that your understanding?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So, the term able-bodied adults without dependents is an interesting one.

    It is for single adults, but they're not all able-bodied. We know from research that many of them may have significant physical or mental health issues that create barriers for work. And they may be without dependents, but that doesn't mean they don't have children. They may be noncustodial parents.

    And whenever they're struggling, we know they have fewer resources available to provide support to those children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I do want to ask you about the numbers, though. It's important to provide some context.

    If you take a look at the last 20 years of the enrollment in those food stamp programs, take a look at this now from 2000 to 2019. It is safe to say it is still twice the number today that it was back in 2000, although it hit a peak up in 2015, about 45 million, down to 36 million now.

    What's important to understand about these numbers? Why haven't we come down to pre-recession numbers?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So, the first thing that's important to understand is that we still have more than 37 million people who struggle with food insecurity, despite a better economy.

    So, that suggests there's still a very significant need for support, even as many people are able to regain employment. We don't quite know what the employment challenges are, but we know that many people may have a criminal justice record that make it more difficult to get employment. They may, in fact, have limited education, may only have a high school diploma or less.

    The unemployment rate for those people is not the same. And so we know, in general, in the last 20 years, the labor market is much more unstable. There's been a rise of gig economy, of people working multiple jobs. And I think that's reflected in the numbers we see today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you're saying just because people have a job doesn't necessarily mean that they are able to provide for themselves, and still might need food aid?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Absolutely. And we know that many people on SNAP do work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let me ask you about those waivers now, because you mentioned not all communities are the same. States could issue them, so that even people — so people could continue to qualify for food assistance.

    What do we know about where they're issued?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So, the waivers have historically been issued in many different parts of the country. About three dozen states have used them either recently across the state or at least in some counties.

    The administration will now limit the ability of those waivers to be provided unless the unemployment rate for 24 months is 6 percent, and also if it's above 20 percent of the national average.

    That might not sound that dramatic, but here's the point; 24-month average means that if unemployment shifts rapidly, states won't be able to respond to that. So, we're concerned that there may be scenarios where an area could have an unemployment rate of, say, 9 percent and still not qualify for a waiver.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about two of the other rules we mentioned earlier, because this new rule goes into effect in April.

    There are two more potential rules on the books. One basically does, what they say, closing a loophole, right, that they say allow households without certain incomes or assets to qualify. It's — the household income would be at $50,000 a year for a family of four — that is 200 percent of the poverty level — or households that have more than $2,250 in total assets. That number would be higher for disabled adults.

    That is one rule that's proposed at the moment. There's a second rule as well that could come into effect. And that would just cut the overall food stamp budget. It would cut it by $4.5 billion from the program over five years. They do that by adjusting the eligibility standards.

    When you look at those two proposed rules, in conjunction with the new rule today, what would be the combined effect of those rules?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    And that's a really important question, because when we look at them individually, they may be concerning, but over the course of a year, we have had three major proposed changes.

    And we estimate that somewhere around 3.7 million people will lose benefits. And that's not including the almost one million children that will lose a direct link to the free lunch program at school.

    That is something that the administration has acknowledged is a consequence of the rule you mentioned changing eligibility.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very briefly, Elaine, the administration says this will save money, we're saving billions of dollars by doing this. Isn't that true?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    I think it will save money. And I wouldn't challenge that, in the short term, and perhaps in the SNAP program.

    What we know about SNAP is that it reduces food insecurity, it reduces poverty, and that people who participate in SNAP may have lower health care expenditures.

    With all things being equal, if fewer people are on SNAP, we can expect those poor outcomes to increase. We may see increased expenses in the Medicaid program and changes over the long term. So, to save money is a relative concept.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute, thank you very much for being here.

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Thank you.

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