A Trump Administration proposal potentially cutting food stamps could cost New York City almost $100 million a year in lost benefits, resulting in more than $150 million annually in lost business, say city officials.
In formal comments opposing the plan, the Office of the Mayor told federal officials nearly 50,000 city residents would lose a monthly average of $151 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Some 9,400 NYC supermarkets, bodegas, farmers markets and other retailers that accept SNAP benefits would lose sales, government data show. The lost sales also threaten jobs and tax revenues, the city says.
Outside the City, 33 New York counties, five cities and a town, also have waivers. All told, the State would lose 89 percent of its current waivers, newly subjecting 107,000 SNAP beneficiaries to time limits, according to Hunger Solutions New York.
“We may be saving a few bucks by not paying them SNAP, but we’re generating costs that will eventually end up as public costs for taking care of people,” says Nicholas Freudenberg, director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute.
Under current U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, healthy, adults without minor children (also known as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents or “ABAWDs”), ages 18 to 49, are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period, unless they work, volunteer or get job training at least 80 hours a month.
However states can grant individual exemptions and waive time limits in areas with high unemployment or “a lack of sufficient jobs.” New York State waivers include the Bronx, parts of Queens and Upper Manhattan.
The Trump Administration’s proposal would reduce individual exemptions. It would also allow waivers only in areas where unemployment tops 7 percent for a recent 24-month period. New York City’s unemployment rate is 4.2 percent.
The USDA estimates 755,000 people nationwide would lose SNAP benefits, because they “would not meet the requirements to engage meaningfully in work or work training.” That loss would save the federal government a projected $15 billion over a decade.
The proposal shows “blatant disregard for the socio-economic realities facing ABAWD individuals,” read the city’s formal comment on the proposed rule, which said the change will worsen hunger, while increasing administrative and fiscal burdens. It also sidesteps the effects of employment discrimination, the city contends.
Forty percent of the city’s ABAWD population is Black and 28 percent is Latino, according to the mayor’s office. While the city’s overall ABAWD unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in 2017, it was 10.8 percent for Blacks and 7.9 percent for Latinos. In January, 28.6 percent had no permanent address, and 4.4 percent were living in shelters.
City Hall hasn’t always advocated expanding SNAP benefits. Mayor Giuliani did not allow waivers. Mayor Bloomberg continued that policy. His HRA Commissioner Robert Doar, defended that position in February 2009, as “consistent with our work focused welfare program,” even as the city’s recession-driven unemployment hit 8.1 percent.
Doar, now a poverty scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, praised the Trump proposal but said it was too generous. Unemployment should top 10 percent – not 7 percent – before allowing waivers, he stated in co-written comments.
At a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing last week, Democrats said a bipartisan Congress rejected similar proposed changes in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (also known as the “Farm Bill”), which President Trump signed. Republicans argued that the administration’s new proposal would curtail waiver abuse in accordance with the law. Both parties argued about who ABAWDs are, and whether cutting off food assistance helps or hurts their job prospects.
A Mathematica Policy Research study of the 1.2 million ABAWDs who would be newly subject to time-limits, found 97 percent lived in poverty compared to 80 percent of others on SNAP. Eleven percent were working, although less than an average of 20 hours a week.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, testified the ABAWD term is “a misnomer” for this population. The agency’s study found high rates of undiagnosed injuries, physical and mental illnesses and learning disabilities among people losing their SNAP benefits. Just this week Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue admitted the able-bodied term “may need some fine tuning.”
Others argue that waivers create dependency. Foundation for Government Accountability Vice President Sam Adolphsen told the committee. After Kansas, Maine, Arkansas and Florida restored work requirements, 75 to 90 percent of ABAWDs lost SNAP benefits, and their wages “more than doubled” within a year, he said.
The strong economy and available jobs provide an opportunity to “right-size the amount of [waiver] flexibility and hold states accountable and move more people off poverty,” said the subcommittee’s senior Republican, Dusty Johnson (R-SD).
“If this was really about the dignity of work and efficiency of the program, we would wait to see the final results from the 2014 Farm Bill, which provided $200 million for 10 employment and training pilot projects,” said subcommittee chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).
Those projects began in 2017 and a final report evaluating their success is due in 2021.
Skeptics wonder if ABAWDS really face the kind of choices that Republicans imply exist. State education and training programs vary widely in capacity and quality, says Ellen Vollinger, Legal/Food Stamp Director, at the Food Research & Action Network in Washington, D.C. “The big concern is just, there aren’t enough slots for everybody who would be affected by this rule.”
“Limiting ABAWD waivers – especially without adding a penny for job creation or wage hikes – would increase hunger and fail to increase employment,” says Joel Berg, CEO of the NYC-based Hunger Free America. Instead, the proposal should include a “serious job program, with serious job training, with work subsidies to help small employers hire more people, [and] expansion of the earned income tax credit.”
The administration’s proposal does not address “the problem of people going hungry or needing assistance. It’s just going to shift that burden downstream, whether to the state, to the city, to the charities in the New York region and to hungry people themselves,” says FRAC’s Ellen Vollinger.
Bronx resident César Rodriguez gets monthly SNAP benefits of $192. The 36-year-old unemployed truck driver attends drug rehabilitation on weekdays, which exempts him from SNAP time-limits.
“I’ve got a couple months left to have myself fully clean, to get back to work,” he says.
To maintain eligibility, Rodriguez must job-hunt five days a week and submit documentation to his case officer, or spend the day on work-related activities at his training program. “The cash isn’t free,” he says. “They make you earn it.”
CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.