As of March 1 in many parts of Pennsylvania, childless adults who are considered able to work can only receive food stamps for 3 months in a 3-year time period unless they are working 20 hours a week or in a job program.
The clock is now ticking for those currently receiving food stamps in Pa., many of whom only earn $2,000 a year. They’ll lose their food stamps in June if they’re not meeting the work requirement. (The clock runs out on April 1 for current recipients in other states.)
This isn’t a new law but a return to a Pres. Clinton’s welfare policy “reform” now that the 2008 recession is considered over. Many people hear about it and think, “Requiring people to work to get food stamps makes sense. Taxpayers shouldn’t be having to help people who are just lazy and could be working!”
This is certainly the “common sense” rationale that has been presented for the food stamps work requirement, which is seen as an incentive that will help push low-income people to find employment and become self-sufficient. Unfortunately, the issue is not so straightforward.
What seems like common sense is actually very misguided policy-making; it’s based on myths that have no basis in reality. Here are the top seven:
Myth #1: A food stamps work requirement will encourage people to get jobs.
When people face food insecurity, their first concern isn’t getting a job — it’s eating. And when they do eat, they eat less, spend less on food, and rely on cheap, energy-rich foods like refined grains, added sugars, and added saturated and trans fats.
Such eating habits are linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), and diabetes. These diseases carry their own costs and leave those affected less likely to be able to hold a job.
Hunger is not a work incentive. It just leaves the human body and brain focused on meeting its basic needs and less able to function at a higher level, which doesn’t help anyone’s chances at finding and getting a job.
Myth #2: If unemployment is low there must be enough jobs for everyone.
True, the unemployment rate in Allegheny County (as of December, 2015) does not qualify it as a labor-surplus area (more people than jobs). But the official unemployment measure fails to include people would prefer full-time employment but have only found part-time work, as well as those who have been looking for work for so long that they’ve given up.
And why would they give up? Because they are not qualified for or face other significant barriers to obtaining the types of jobs that are available.
Childless adults that the state considers “able-bodied” are often not working because of a variety of factors, including but not limited to: lack of adequate transportation, limited education, limited employable skills, difficulty finding work because of a criminal record (even a very old one), undiagnosed mental or physical disabilities, limited language skills, limited literacy – and the list goes on. We should note that these barriers to employment are often the consequences of a life in poverty.
Myth #3: If there aren’t enough jobs, then people can just go into job training or other work programs.
But there also aren’t enough job training or work programs. While this was the original intention of the policy, states are not required to offer a job training spot to every able-bodied person without dependents (ABAWD) that wants one.
States can take a pledge to offer a job or work slot to every ABAWD in need, and receive federal funding for doing so, but Pennsylvania has not taken that pledge for 2016. (Note: There may be interest for a PA pledge in 2017.)
Job search is also not counted as an allowable work activity. So, individuals could be diligently looking for work, or interested in a work program but not able to enroll in one, and they still will be cut off from food stamps.
Myth #4: Getting people off food stamps saves the state money, so we can focus those limited dollars on other issues.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”) is 100% federally funded. Limiting the number of people who receive food stamps saves the state no money whatsoever.
Furthermore, hunger carries its own economic costs. So forcing people off food stamps and into hunger has a huge price-tag that’s borne locally.
And shouldn’t we be making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes before we say there’s not enough money to help those in need?
Myth #5: People can just get charity food.
This myth assumes that food banks and community pantries have enough funds and receive enough donations to feed an influx of tens of thousands of people. Yet the charity model of addressing hunger only provides one of in 20 of the bags of food assistance hungry Americans receive.
Nearly 10,000 more people in Allegheny County will start losing their food stamps this June because they can’t meet the food stamps work requirement. Food banks and charities already stretch their resources thin and can’t meet existing need.
Myth #6: No one is going to starve to death, so this isn’t a big deal.
Certainly, people in the United States, one of the world’s richest countries with no shortage of food don’t suffer from starvation like other places in the world. But there are still tens of millions of people – one in seven of us – who regularly experience hunger and food insecurity.
Myth #7: People should work to get food stamps.
At Just Harvest we view food as a fundamental human right. In short, we believe no one should go hungry, no matter what. People should still be valued as human beings even if they have no current “value” in our economy.
So if people aren’t employed, they still shouldn’t go hungry. If it’s “just” adults with no children, they still shouldn’t go hungry.
Because hunger, like poverty, isn’t a choice. It is a symptom of economic injustice.
The overwhelming majority of food stamps recipients are seniors, disabled, children, and the working poor – typically considered blameless for their poverty. The rest are people who, for a variety of reasons, are also struggling. They too deserve our sympathy and support.
But even if we just want to figure out who to blame, shouldn’t we then focus on those millions of Americans who are working full-time and yet are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps? Instead of making demands of those in poverty, shouldn’t our lawmakers be targeting those employers with reforms, like raising the minimum wage and other fair policies?
Isn’t that the real problem with our safety net policies – not that they let too many people have food stamps but that they let too many people need food stamps? That taxpayers are forced to pay for bad labor practices?
And how about making corporations and the wealthy pay more in taxes so we have sufficient funding for our schools, job training, and for impoverished communities? Wouldn’t that be a better way to help people escape poverty?
Our goal is to eliminate hunger in Allegheny County by pursuing real justice. Denying food assistance to people in poverty is an injustice we can’t support.