Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Sizing up food stamps

Compassion | Trump says the program is shrinking, but experts argue it’s not contracting fast enough
by Kyle Ziemnick
Posted 2/13/19, 05:13 pm

During last week’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump boasted of a drop in the number of food stamp recipients during his administration. “Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps,” he said, touting the statistic as a sign of economic prosperity. Conservative members of Congress responded with 15 seconds of applause.

Food stamp enrollment numbers have gone down significantly in recent years, but they could—and should—be much lower with better policy, according to welfare reform advocates.

The latest month-by-month data released in September 2018 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the government entity that oversees food stamp distribution, showed a decrease of 4.1 million recipients since Trump’s inauguration. If the trend were to continue, that difference would reach the 5 million mark later this month.

Food stamp enrollment has declined steadily since 2013, with a steeper fall in the past two years. One of the biggest drops came under the Obama administration in 2016, when several states reinstated work requirements for SNAP that they had lifted during the Great Recession, when not enough jobs were available. The change immediately disqualified almost a million recipients.

At the same time, the economy was also improving. The national unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent late last year, the lowest in almost 50 years. The rate has steadily fallen since hitting a high of 10 percent in 2009, a shift that seems to correlate with the decrease in food stamp recipients.

Some wonder why the number of SNAP recipients, now at about 38.5 million, hasn’t fallen more. There are still twice as many people on food stamps now as there were in 2002, and the economy is stronger in many respects now than it was then, leading some experts to think the number of people requiring nutrition assistance should be down to pre-recession levels.

Robert Doar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the reason why so many people are still on food stamps lies with SNAP requirements. “There are still millions of work-capable adults on SNAP’s rolls who do not work at all,” he wrote in September. Broad exceptions to the SNAP work requirement and inconsistent implementation of the rules mean only 30 percent of SNAP recipients who should be working are working, according to the House Agriculture Committee.

The Trump administration tried to shore up the SNAP work requirements in last year’s Farm Bill but couldn’t get enough support in Congress. Now the administration is attempting to implement the change by revising the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations to limit states’ ability to waive the work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. That proposal is open for public comment until April 2.

Changing the work requirements for SNAP won’t address one of the root causes of the problem: unstable families. Doar pointed out that poverty is two to four times as likely in single-parent homes. “Family structure clearly matters in making sure that children do not go hungry, and poverty fighters would be wise to acknowledge that,” he said. Maybe the key to being better off than we were years ago is creating a culture that supports the family, rather than just trying to pick up the broken pieces.

iStock/Favor_of_God iStock/Favor_of_God

Empty promises

Two Oklahoma companies accused of luring immigrants to the United States and mistreating them agreed to settle with the U.S. Department of Labor late last month for more than $31,500. The Clinton, Okla., companies, owned by Walter and Carolyn Shumacher, ran two hotels, a water park, and a Montana Mike’s steakhouse. The couple did not acknowledge any violations under the terms of the settlement but agreed to make the payment “as a good faith resolution with the Administrator concerning the alleged violations,” according to a Labor Department order.

Two other cases against the couple are ongoing. In 2017, three Filipino workers who arrived in the United States on temporary work visas filed a class-action lawsuit against the Schumachers. Last year, three workers from Jamaica who were on student work visas filed a similar suit. Both groups allege the Schumachers promised the them certain hours, wages, and living arrangements if they would come to the United States to work for their companies. The immigrants claim that when they arrived the couple paid them less than minimum wage, did not give them the agreed-upon number of hours, and charged them for housing they originally said would be free or extremely cheap.

Immigrants who do not understand the language or laws tend to be vulnerable to exploitation and struggle to find attorneys or others to advocate for them.

A federal judge in Oklahoma City on Feb. 5 denied separate motions to dismiss the lawsuits. —Charissa Crotts

Associated Press/Photo by Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer Associated Press/Photo by Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain

‘Safe’ injection site

A federal prosecutor filed suit last week to stop one of the United States’ first safe injection sites for drug users from opening in Philadelphia. Former Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell created the nonprofit group Safehouse last year in the city’s drug-ridden Kensington neighborhood. While other countries like Canada say these sites reduce overdose deaths and HIV infections, the only ones in operation in the United States do so in secret. Safehouse directors said they expected the Trump administration to file suit and had a law firm ready to represent the organization pro bono.

Safe injection sites provide a secure, clean place for people to use drugs. Nurse practitioners or other medical personnel are present with clean needles and overdose reversal drugs. Users can also receive information about treatment programs and medical care. Philadelphia has one of the highest opioid overdose rates in the country, and city officials were ready to look the other way when Safehouse announced its plans. But William McSwain, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Philadelphia, pointed out that the Controlled Substance Act forbids anyone from knowingly operating a place for people to use illegal drugs.

“Normalizing use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic,” McSwain told reporters at a news conference last week. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson (left) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio at a signing ceremony for a New York City public housing policy on Jan. 31

Cleaning up public housing

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson on Jan. 31 announced an agreement between HUD and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) that will address issues that have plagued the city’s housing properties, like lead-based paint, mold, and vermin. Under the terms of the agreement, the city pledged money to address these issues over the next decade and HUD agreed to continue funding the NYCHA.

“The families who have endured unimaginably poor housing conditions deserve better from their housing authority,” said Carson. “Today we are presenting NYCHA residents with bold new solutions for decades-old problems.”

The NYCHA has long faced accusations of mismanagement and stories of terrible conditions in its properties. In December, Carson sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio demanding he produce a HUD-approved plan by the end of January to address these problems. —C.C.

The future of charity

Charitable giving by Americans will likely increase in 2019 and 2020 due to economic growth and the Republican Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017, according to a report released last month by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. The annual Philanthropy Outlook predicted 3.4 percent growth in U.S. charitable giving this year and 4.1 percent next year.

But the tax law is also making it difficult for charities to predict giving numbers, Inside Philanthropy reported. The law raises the standard deduction so that a smaller number of taxpayers will find it worthwhile to itemize deductions on their taxes, taking away a main source of information researchers use to count how much Americans donate each year. —C.C.

Kyle Ziemnick

Kyle is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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Comments

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Thu, 02/14/2019 01:25 pm

    Who is using food assistance programs?  Well, in the state of Washington, it appears to be mostly immigrants.  I frequently stand in long lines at the supermarket, behind Muslim women who have WIC (Women, Infant, Children) cards.  Only certain brands and sizes are allowed, so the store clerks spend a very long time running back and forth to get the correct products.  When these women get outside they are greeted by vans with men who load all the food in the back.  In researching these programs, having many children can give these families annual incomes of over $80K per year.  And they also get housing assistance.  Many live in my son's neighborhood along with the homeless who are given free housing.  The men do not work, as they are home all day and appear to be selling drugs and merchandise out of their apartments.

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