Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Food stamp reform?

Compassion | USDA proposal would more narrowly enforce work requirements for SNAP benefits
by Charissa Koh
Posted 1/02/19, 09:14 pm

The United States Department of Agriculture proposed a rule last month to make states enforce work requirements in their food stamps programs, after similar changes were dropped from the farm bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The proposal announced Dec. 20 does not add new work requirements but limits the exceptions a state can offer able-bodied adults without dependents. The USDA noted that about 74 percent of the 3.8 million able-bodied adults without dependents enrolled in food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in 2016 did not work. These adults now must work 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months out of every three years. After that, they must work at least 80 hours per month to continue getting assistance, receiving more benefits when they make less money.

Currently, states can override these rules and extend SNAP benefits to an individual in certain situations, such as unusually high unemployment in the state. The number of unused exceptions a state has carries over into the next year. The USDA’s proposal would limit these time waivers, forcing states to enforce the existing work requirements more consistently.

The proposal was announced the day Trump signed an $887 billion farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year. Lawmakers fought over the tougher work requirements in the bill, which would have raised the age of adults who must meet work requirements from 49 to 59, among other new rules. Despite the president’s supportive tweets, Congress could not reach an agreement and dropped the work requirements in order to pass the bill. The president then turned to the Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“I have directed Secretary Perdue to use his authority to close work requirement loopholes in the food stamp program,” Trump said. “That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done, we all wanted it done, and in the end, it’s going to make a lot of people happy.”

Democrats tend to believe work requirements for SNAP make life unnecessarily hard for poor people who are already suffering. Republicans usually to see the rules as an encouragement for poor people, putting them on the path of independence and leaving poverty.

Robert Doar, a Morgridge fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, used to manage SNAP in New York City for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and believes in instituting work requirements for able-bodied adults.

“Managing government safety-net programs … made it clear that the only way out of poverty is through earnings,” he wrote regarding the farm bill in September. “SNAP and other safety net programs can and do reduce material hardship, but for non-workers, receiving support from such programs alone is not enough to raise incomes above the poverty line. If people are to escape poverty, earnings must be part of the equation.”

The USDA’s proposal will now go through a period for public comment.

Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber An October raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Richmond, Va.

Jump in ICE workplace arrests

In fiscal year 2018, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested nearly 10 times as many illegal immigrants at their workplace than in the previous fiscal year. Despite this upswing, the number remains lower than arrests made during President George W. Bush’s administration.

The overall number of arrests for illegal immigration increased just 11 percent in 2018 over the previous year, according to data ICE released on Dec. 11, but the number of workplace arrests increased from 172 to 1,525. ICE agents also conducted 6,000 I-9 audits in 2018, requiring businesses to produce paperwork proving their employees are in the country legally. In 2017, ICE only required 1,360 I-9 audits.

Despite the increase in workplace arrests, the number is lower than it was from 2006 to 2008, when close to 3,000 were taken into custody each year.

The increased number of workplace arrests does send a message to those in the country illegally that they won’t necessarily find sanctuary at their jobs, and should make employers think twice before making such hires. —C.C.

iStock/BackyardProduction iStock/BackyardProduction A prescription bottle of the opioid Oxycodone

DEA failed West Virginia

The Drug Enforcement Administration failed to stop a massive flow of opioids into rural West Virginia despite signs of abuse, according to a congressional report released on Dec. 19.

The report, prepared by the House Energy and Commerce Committee after an 18-month investigation, tracks five drug companies, showing their failure to monitor the distribution of opioids to pharmacies in the state, which in 2016 had the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the nation. The report said companies should have noticed pharmacies serving small rural communities were ordering massive amounts of opioids, sometimes prescribed by doctors who practiced more than 300 miles away. It also implicated the DEA for not using its database to track the flow of opioids from distributors to pharmacies.

The report concluded with the committee’s recommendations for tougher standards for reporting suspicious orders, a better method for the DEA to track data, and staff reviews in the areas of the country hit hardest by the opioid crisis. In response, the DEA said it had upgraded its software program so it could better investigate suspicious activity. —C.C.

iStock/cyano66 iStock/cyano66

Dollar stores in food deserts

Dollar General plans to sell fruits and vegetables at more locations in 2019, CEO Todd Vasos told reporters last month. This change could especially benefit Americans living in “food deserts,” where various dollar store chains are often the only option for groceries.

In 2018, Dollar General renovated close to 200 stores, and a third of them began offering fresh produce. The success of these stores prompted the company to expand the freezer and produce sections in more locations the following year. Many of these stores participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and their lower prices make it easier for families on a tight budget.

“Food deserts” are low-income areas with limited or no access to healthy food. Dollar stores tend to concentrate in these areas, which are often too small or poor for larger chains like Walmart to operate.

“Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America,” said Garrick Brown, director for retail research at the commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. —C.C.

Homeless Muppet

The children’s TV program Sesame Street has added a new Muppet character to familiarize children with the problem of homelessness and relate to kids who are experiencing it.

Lily is a 7-year-old girl Muppet whose family has lost their apartment. The character was first introduced in a 2011 episode that dealt with hunger and is part of the Sesame Street in Communities initiative, which released a number of resources, including videos, coloring pages, and activities. —C.C.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.

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