by Maggie Dickinson, author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net

The Trump Administration just approved a new rule that will cut an estimated 700,000 unemployed and under-employed people from the SNAP (formerly food stamp) rolls. The rule will make it harder for states to waive the program’s work requirements during periods of high unemployment. The change is part of a larger pattern of adding work requirements to public assistance programs, including Medicare and public housing.

Though it would be easy to chalk these recent changes up to the cruel and excessive policies of the Trump administration, the roots of today’s decision run much deeper. SNAP work requirements are modelled on what both Republicans and Democrats tout as the ‘success’ of welfare reforms passed in the 1990’s. Welfare reforms solidified a view of welfare assistance as something that poor women should earn through work, rather than a protection for when they were out of the labor market – either because they were caring for children or because they were out of a job. Refusal to comply with work requirements meant women and their families could be cut from both cash and food assistance.

Ironically, it was the restriction of cash assistance through the institution of work requirements that made food stamps the leading edge of the 21st Century response to poverty and growing economic insecurity. Most women who left the welfare rolls after the passage of welfare reform legislation in the 1996 found low-wage jobs, but very little relief from the grinding poverty they had known when they were receiving assistance. Full-time working mothers who struggled to make ends meet emerged as a new deserving poor and welfare spending and program administration were transformed to boost the value of these workers’ low wages.

The bi-partisan policy approach in the post-welfare reform era has been to modify and expand some welfare benefits like SNAP to “make work pay,” especially for working mothers, by subsidizing their low wages. Since 2001, the fastest-growing demographic on the food stamp rolls has been low-wage workers and their families.[1] Food stamp rolls rose steadily in this period, from 17 million in 2001 to 27 million in 2008. This growth gained even more momentum as a deep recession took hold. SNAP rolls reached a peak of 47 million in 2012 and, despite an official economic recovery, have remained near this historic high[2].

Over the past twenty years, policy makers have redesigned the social safety net to subsidize low income workers and to exclude the unemployed. The Trump administration’s new rule to tighten work requirements for SNAP is a step further in that direction. Low wage employers are the real winners in this policy configuration. They can pay their workers below subsistence wages and have access to an increasingly desperate pool of laborers who will take any job under any conditions.

The existence of hunger in the United States is bound up in the deep seated belief that work is and should be the primary mechanism for distributing goods and services. The right to food is tied to the obligation to work. However, work has become an increasingly ineffective system for distributing basic goods and services in the latter half of the twentieth century. As the experience of Black Americans and exploited immigrant workers demonstrates, it has never been a particularly good system for ensuring all people are able to meet their basic needs.

People who care about hunger must do far more than simply oppose Trump’s latest attacks on SNAP. Ending hunger in the United States demands an inclusive politics that flips work requirements on their head. When people seek assistance, they should be given the opportunity to work at well paid jobs that raise labor standards rather than lower them. Arguments for a federal work guarantee build directly off of the idea, so foundational to the current welfare configuration, that work should be a path out of poverty — but acknowledge that this is currently not the case. We need new ideas that make the unthinkable politics of yesterday seem inevitable, so when the next crisis hits, the programs that get put in place transform the politics of hunger, either by changing work as a system of distribution or by breaking with it completely.

  1. Ziliak J. Why are So Many Americans on Food Stamps?: The Role of the Economy, Policy and Demographics. In: Bartfield J, Gunderson C, Smeeding T, Ziliak J, eds. SNAP Matters: How Food Stamps Affect Health and Well-Being. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
  2. USDA. Trends in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Rates: Fiscal Year 2010 to Fiscal Year 2016. In: Service FaN, ed. Washington, DC: FNS, 2018.