The federal government undertook welfare reform in 1996, through “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act”. Congress passed this act to focus on moving welfare recipients into work and off the welfare roles. Each state was slated to receive a block of funds with which to implement a tailored state-wide plan to get as many people employed as possible. New Jersey dubbed its reformed program “Work First New Jersey.” I believe that the plan’s authors did not intend our economically struggling residents to literally work first before eating. Likewise, I don’t believe that the intent of the Trump Administration’s new SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps) rules are designed to do that either.
For able-bodied adults without dependent children (referred to as ABAWDs), the rules were stringent, allowing only three months of SNAP benefits in three years unless the recipient has a job or is in school or a work training program for 20 hours a week. Historically, states were given the flexibility to extend the three-month limit based on local area unemployment rates and other unique economic circumstances. For example, in New Jersey we have adjusted the monthly income eligibility threshold to reflect extraordinary housing cost in our state.
In New Jersey, some 673,966 people receive SNAP benefits. According to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in our growing economy the new rules are designed to move more people who are able to work into jobs. Under the new rules, to take affect April 1, 2020, states will only be able to seek waivers if the unemployment rate is over 6%, and waiver applications will require complex data and greater specificity.
In New Jersey, this means 12,000 adults may lose roughly $160 in monthly nutritional benefits. By the way, data shows that most SNAP recipients do work, and the program has been proven to lift people out of poverty. Further, SNAP has one of the highest payment accuracy rates of any entitlement program, delivering participant appropriate benefit levels with low administrative overhead.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue claims that “…there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.” While that is correct from an overall population perspective, it is not true from an ABAWD’s perspective. I know first-hand, that many of these folks grapple with multiple barriers that make employment very difficult – untreated mental illness, active addiction, poor reading and basic math skills, anger management issues and the myriad of unique issues faced by those reentering society after addiction treatment or a prison term.
In addition, training programs that can help ABAWDs gain employment are in very limited supply, as are transportation options to get to the training or the job. Many of the jobs ABAWDs get are temporary in nature and/or have unpredictable hours making the new work requirement difficult to meet on a consistent basis.
This rule change has the appearance of “quid pro quo”- if you work then you can eat. It is a fallacy that adults can lay around, not work and live on the government dole. Time limits have been set on these safety net programs, and as a result New Jersey has seen a decrease in the number of persons receiving “welfare”. Five years ago, at Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) we had up to 30 welfare recipients in a required work experience program (CWEP- Community Work Experience Program). Today, we have only 5 participants.
During my thirty-five-year career as a professional social worker, I have met less than a handful of people that duped the system. Honestly, who chooses to go to a food pantry to get a bag of groceries that might not even make a meal? I don’t see a whole lot of folks coming for a meal at TASK who have a refrigerator full of food or who stop in after their vacations to take advantage of a free meal. People who use SNAP, food pantries and soup kitchens are hungry. Food is a basic human right, and science tells us that in order to perform successfully in school or at work, one need to eat.
TASK serves many able-bodied adults without children, and if this measure is indeed implemented, we will see more and see them more often. In announcing the rule change Agriculture Secretary Perdue, said “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American Dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an indefinite giving hand.”
I am having difficulty reconciling how letting adults go hungry is an incentive to work or to work harder. Please let your congressional representative know that you are opposed to the new SNAP rule change that will hurt the most vulnerable among us.
By Joyce Campbell, Executive Director, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen