Trump Makes The Most Important Anti-Hunger Program Harder To Access For People Leaving Prison
Under a new rule announced yesterday, the Trump administration expects to slash 688,000 from the rolls of people receiving short-term food assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), described as the nation’s “most important anti-hunger program,” is recognized as extraordinarily effective, keeping millions of people, including children, out of poverty and from hunger. The administration, in what Democrats denounced as an act of “cartoonish villainy,” is now using reports of low unemployment rates as an argument for making it harder for poor people to receive SNAP benefits. This change will have grave consequences for, among others, formerly incarcerated people and others with criminal legal system involvement who face enormous barriers to employment.
Under existing law, SNAP already ties assistance to employment. Adults without disabilities who don’t live with dependents are only eligible for three months in any 36-month period unless they are employed or in a work training program for at least 20 hours a week. The three-month time limit is “one of the harshest rules” of SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy institute. States, meanwhile, are under no obligation to offer work or training programs and most do not. The result, according to the CBPP, is that “SNAP recipients’ benefits are generally cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job or willing to participate in a qualifying work or job training program.” The effect is that “this rule is, in reality, a time limit on benefits and not a work requirement, as it is sometimes described.”
The time limit’s harshness has been alleviated to some degree by a waiver program that allows states to exempt people living in areas of high unemployment. The Trump administration’s change will limit the circumstances under which states can seek those waivers, making it harder for states to respond to periods of acute economic distress. A similar provision was removed from last year’s farm bill passed by Congress after progressive Democrats and Republicans from rural areas banded together to oppose it. Now the Trump administration is making it a reality via executive action. Two other provisions (which also failed to pass in last year’s farm bill) to shrink food stamp benefits are also under consideration, including one that would lead to over 900,000 children losing automatic eligibility for school lunches.
The just-announced rule will have serious consequences for people with criminal legal system involvement. A Center for American Progress report from March was clear about the implications of such a change. It pointed to the nearly 9 in 10 employers who use criminal background checks in hiring which means that “even an old, minor criminal record can serve as a life sentence to poverty and joblessness.” The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is approximately 27 percent and “one study shows that 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year following their release.”
A CBPP report last year on the importance of waivers on time limits noted: “People with criminal records find it harder to be hired… It is unrealistic to expect these individuals to find work quickly, especially in weaker labor markets.”
Last year, when the provisions cutting SNAP benefits were still in the farm bill, DeAnna Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA wrote in The Hill: “Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from incarceration. These individuals face 48,000 laws and statutes (approximately 70 percent of which apply to employment) that impede the rights of all people living with convictions; their right to eat should not be one. Yet according to one study, nearly 91 percent of people immediately become ‘food insecure’ upon release.”
The period of re-entry has been thoroughly documented as a time of extraordinary upheaval and vulnerability. People contend with high risks of relapse, recidivism, and even mortality. For people under parole supervision, the obligations of parole often take precedence over anything else, even seeking work, since failure to meet those obligations, on its own, can be grounds for reincarceration. And even for those who are able to prioritize job searching, many will face extraordinary odds.
SNAP benefits are small—$127 a month per individual, on average, or $1.39 a meal—but they make an enormous difference. In 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated, SNAP benefits kept 7.3 million people, including 3.3 million children, out of poverty.
“The economic margins for the formerly incarcerated are narrower than many of us can imagine,” wrote Alex Busansky of Impact Justice, and Gary Maynard, a former head of the American Correctional Association, in the Washington Post last year. “Median annual income right after release from prison is about $6,500—effectively, a state of deep poverty. Today, around 70 percent of those released depend on SNAP two months later to survive.”
The president has given himself enormous credit for the enactment of the limited First Step Act, claiming a commitment to redemption and second chances, including for people returning home from prison. The cuts to SNAP betray this administration’s true character—a deep indifference to the challenges, even suffering, of people coming home from prison and a willingness to make their lives, and those of so many others living in poverty, even more desperate.