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The Food Stamp Work Requirement Is a Scheme to Punish Hungry Americans

December 5th, 2019 | David Moberg

Growing up in Boonville, California in the 1990s, a friend of mine would sometimes jokingly use the phrase “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” If people are feeling bad, what better incentive to change their mood than getting repeatedly whacked with a stick?

The recent proposal by Congress to add work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) reminded me of that phrase. In the 2018 Farm Bill currently under consideration in the House, Republicans have proposed new conditions for SNAP that would block many people from receiving food assistance if they are unemployed. While at first glance this may appear like a policy to encourage greater employment, it would actually make it harder for people to find a job, while taking away crucial support from more than one million hungry Americans.

While setting more unemployed Americans on a path to employment and economic self-sufficiency is a positive goal, the threat of withholding food is a highly ineffective way to encourage workforce participation. Some of the most common barriers to employment are insufficient education or skills, mental health issues, hiring biases and a lack of job opportunities. Fear of not having enough to eat does nothing to overcome those obstacles.

When people are hungry, they’re frequently unable to focus, which makes it harder for them to get a job, not easier. Instead of boosting employment, this proposal would act as a barrier rather than an incentive.

The actual impact of this policy change would be to punish hungry Americans. In many regions of the country, people are struggling to find full-time work, but can’t. While the overall unemployment rate sits at a low 3.8 percent, the rate of involuntary underemployment is more than twice that, and exceeds 10 percent in many states and counties. This proposal would leave those who are unable to find a job with neither income nor food assistance.

Instead of adding poorly-designed restrictions to SNAP, we should be pursuing evidence-based policy changes to increase the effectiveness of our social programs. As someone who works on universal basic income policy, I’ve spent years studying the effects of unconditional benefits, i.e. what happens when you offer people support without any requirements on their behavior. Every analysis has arrived at the same conclusion: When you give people benefits without strings attached, they use them for productive purposes. The vast majority of people want to do well in life, and they’ll make the most of any support they receive.

When we layer on restrictions and bureaucratic hoops that recipients must jump through, not only does this not improve people’s behavior, it actually blocks many people from receiving much-needed support. Even without the new work requirements, SNAP already has many barriers to access that make it difficult to enroll. In California, the latest estimates finds that only 70 percent of eligible residents receive SNAP benefits—due in large part to the challenging enrollment process.

SNAP has a profound positive impact on hungry families. Beyond just providing food security, recent research has found the program reduces healthcare costs and increases economic self-sufficiency for women who received benefits as children. We should be striving to boost participation by removing onerous participation requirements, with the goal of ensuring that every hungry American has access to the program.

Our social safety net is far from perfect—there are many needed changes that can help lift more people out of poverty and set them on a path for long-term success. But if we want to do better, we should aim to remove barriers to access, not punish struggling Americans by taking food assistance away from those who can’t find work.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.David Moberg has worked with In These Times since its inception in 1976.  During that time, he has established himself as one of the country’s leading journalists covering the labor movement.

As a senior editor for In These Times, Moberg has written about new battlefronts for labor, examined the past and present strategy of the labor movement and profiled many labor fights before they were covered in the mainstream media. Additionally, his areas of expertise encompass globalization and trade, economic policy, national politics, urban affairs, the environment and energy.

Moberg has been awarded numerous accolades for his journalism efforts, including the Max Steinbock Award from the International Labor Communications Association, (2003); Forbes MediaGuide 500: A review of the Nation’s Most Important Journalists (1993, 1994), and a Project Censored Award in 1995. He has also received fellowships from organizations such as The Nation Institute (1999-2001) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1995-1997).

Moberg has also written for The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, Salon, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, the Chicago ReaderChicago, The New Republic, Dissent, L.A. Weekly, World Policy Journal, Newsday, the Boston Globe, Utne Reader, Mother Jones, and others.

Moberg has also contributed to a series of books including: Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times (Seven Stories, 2002); The Next Agenda (Westview Press, 2001); Which Direction for Organized Labor? (Wayne State University Press, 1999); Not Your Father’s Union Movement (WW Norton & Company Inc., 1998); Can We Put an End to Sweatshops? (Beacon Press, 2001); Making Work Pay: America After Welfare (WW Norton & Company Inc., 2002); The New Chicago (to be released); Encyclopedia of Chicago History (2004), and others.

In addition to his work at In These Times, Moberg has taught sociology and anthropology at DePaul University, Roosevelt University, Loyola University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and Northeastern Illinois University.

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