Last April, advocates for low-income people in West Virginia sent a letter to state officials who were preparing to drop more than 1,500 people from the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or food stamps), demanding that an exemption be made for the homeless.
The state had decided to reinstate a federal rule in several counties requiring people without registered disabilities or dependent children to work at least 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamps longer than three months. The advocates argued West Virginia should follow the lead of other states and exempt houseless people from the requirement, because they face structural barriers to employment and often do not have a place to store their belongings while at work.
"While this may be workable for some homeless individuals, it is truly a Hobson's choice for the homeless SNAP recipient: Either risk losing their possessions by leaving those items unattended during 20-plus hours of work per week, or lose their source of food under the SNAP program by failing to satisfy the SNAP work requirements," the letter states.
West Virginia officials initially agreed to make the exemption, but it was dropped three months later, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Homeless individuals must now have their eligibility for SNAP evaluated on a case-by-case basis, which can mean additional office visits and paperwork for people who may have lost personal documents to theft or misplacement while living without stable housing.
This problem could be replicated across the country if President Trump has his way. Mirroring policies extolled by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the White House budget proposal released this week would phase work requirements back into the SNAP program nationally, while slashing funding for it and other safety-net programs like Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars. The news has outraged advocates for the struggling and hungry.
"So, SNAP is what keeps families afloat, it helps people put food on the table ... it is the cornerstone program that prevents hunger in this country and lifts people out of poverty," said Michelle Stuffmann, spokesperson for the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON, in an interview with Truthout. "That anyone would want to prevent people from putting food on the table is horrifying."
In all, Trump's budget proposal would cut $1.7 trillion from virtually every program that helps reduce poverty and support the working class over the next decade, in order to "balance the budget" and pay for tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, according to White House documents and advocacy groups. Funding for SNAP would drop by at least $191 billion -- a 25 percent cut -- by shifting costs to states, cutting eligibility for millions of households and reducing benefits for many more.
"This is an attack on the poor," said Nune Phillips, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advocates for low-income people and families.
Although the proposed cuts would impact programs benefiting low-income children, the disabled and the elderly, the Trump administration has framed its budget proposal around so-called "welfare reforms" designed to incentivize able-bodied people to get off the government dole and find a paying job. In a press conference on Tuesday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said some SNAP participants do want to find jobs, but others simply "don't want to work."
"If there's 44 million people on there, eight years from the end of the recession, maybe, maybe it's reasonable to ask if there are folks who are on there who shouldn't be," Mulvaney said.
Federal law requires able-bodied people without dependent children to work or receive job training for at least 20 hours a week in order to participate in the SNAP program for more than three months in a 36-month period. States can apply to extend this time limit, and the Obama administration waived the employment requirement for dozens of states as unemployment rates skyrocketed during the Great Recession.
As parts of the country have enjoyed economic recovery, some states gradually stopped applying for the waivers, or are using them only in areas where unemployment rates remain high. West Virginia, for example, still receives a federal waiver on the time limits for unemployed individuals, but advocates raised concerns about homeless residents last year as state officials reinstated the federal time limit in nine counties where unemployment rates tend to be lower than in the rest of the state.
"The reality is, the economy has recovered only for some people in this country," Stuffmann said. "Some of the better-paying careers and jobs have been replaced by lower wage, part-time employment."
In 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimated that more than 500,000 low-income people could lose their food stamps as federal waivers expired in 22 states. Under Trump's plan, waivers would be limited to areas with at least 10 percent unemployment, reducing the number of counties with a time-limit waiver from 1,000 to about 54 and leaving 1 million unemployed and underemployed people without food assistance.
"Stable employment may not be available to many due to multiple economic factors," Phillips said. "Imposing a time limit does not change those circumstances -- it just takes away a crucial lifeline for people and perpetuates hunger."
Right-wing media outlets perpetuate classist myths about SNAP recipients, and Mulvaney would have us believe that many people use food stamps to avoid getting a job. It's a tough sell considering that people who are considered "able to work" and are subject to the time limit receive an average of only $150 to $170 a month in food stamps, according to CBPP. SNAP benefits are phased out slowly as earnings rise, and the program includes deductions for work expenses, so there is little incentive to stay unemployed.
Stuffmann and Phillips agreed that people impacted by the time limit come from diverse backgrounds. Some have trouble finding work because they are homeless or have been incarcerated, and others are veterans of war. Some have kids they remain responsible for but cannot claim as child dependents because they are over the age of 18. Phillips said restricting the time-limit waivers would hit "the most vulnerable populations the hardest."
In general, advocates say, SNAP works the way it's supposed to: Participants receive the assistance for a limited period of time when they lose a job or earnings fall, and then leave the program when they start making more money again. Enforcing a time limit on unemployed people does not alleviate poverty, and any increases in employment in states that reinstated the time limit typically indicate that people have found temporary, low-paying jobs after losing their benefits.
"There is this myth that somehow safety-net programs are more like a hammock," said Stuffmann.
Trump's proposal would rob states of the flexibility to spend federal funding in targeted areas that have not enjoyed economic recovery and develop their own programs for helping SNAP participants find jobs. It would also shift up to 25 percent of the program's costs to states by 2023, incentivizing state governments to make their own cuts and find ways to kick people off the rolls in order to balance budgets.
Phillips said this would leave the SNAP program "unrecognizable" compared to what it is today. This has implications for both unemployed people and workers with low-paying jobs who rely on food stamps to feed their kids, a group that even includes members of the military. If anything, advocates say, SNAP needs more funding, not less, and government data shows that investing in food security via SNAP stimulates the economy.
Like any president's budget proposal, Trump's is about framing policies rather than enacting them. Lawmakers have indicated that his proposed cuts would not fly on either side of the aisle, but conservatives have had their eye on gutting programs like SNAP by adding work requirements and cutting funding for years now. Stuffmann said now is a good time to contact representatives and make it clear that any calls for austerity should be rejected in their entirety.
After all, programs such as SNAP are supporting the nation's workforce, not subsidizing it into complacency.
"If you are hungry, you can't focus, and if you can't focus, you can't do a good job," Stuffmann said.