For weeks now, lawmakers, advocates, organizations and individuals from around Vermont joined the chorus of more than 140,000 public comments submitted on a rule that would force many Americans to lose their federal food stamps.
Those pleas fell on arrogantly deaf ears.
In a staggering display of neglect and irresponsibility, the Trump administration on Wednesday announced the rule change would, in fact, go into effect. The implication would impact nearly 700,000 people nationwide, and tens of thousands of Vermonters who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funding.
The rule, which was proposed by the Department of Agriculture in February, would make states enforce work requirements for able-bodied adults without children, which governors have routinely been allowed to waive, especially for areas in economic distress. The economy has improved under the Trump administration, the department argued, and assistance to unemployed, able-bodied adults was no longer necessary in a strong job market.
In a study released last month, the Urban Institute estimated that taken together, the three measures in the rule would affect roughly 2.2 million households and 3.7 million individual beneficiaries.
But the truth is: The final rule simply takes food away from those who need it most.
The rule makes it more difficult for states to waive the time limit for the second set of work requirements. States have typically waived the three-month time limit for one or two years in areas that have a lack of sufficient jobs or high unemployment rates. Every state except Delaware has used the waiver in the past 23 years. After the 2008 recession, the time limit was suspended in areas representing nearly 90% of the population.
Also, as our own Sen. Patrick Leahy pointed out, it will make the program less responsive in times of sharp economic decline such as a recession.
“We must be prepared to act swiftly in times of dire need. This rule prevents that,” he noted by Tweet.
Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, made a last-minute plea to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in recent days, explaining — once again — how critical SNAP funding is for Vermont — and the nation.
The delegation noted, right now, states can allow low-income families who have already qualified for federal-assistance programs to be automatically enrolled in other programs. This option has a proven track record of reducing the paperwork burden for families and states while extending support to those in need. The rule change eliminates that automatic enrollment option to all states for nutrition assistance, in a move that targets working families, seniors and people with disabilities.
SNAP is a successful program that lifted 8.4 million people across the country out of poverty in 2015 alone. Vermont’s automatic enrollment of SNAP recipients is an important piece of the program’s success. It allows families to build the assets they need to lift themselves out of poverty without fearing that they will lose their benefits.
Perdue disagreed: “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
Anti-poverty groups — like the five community action agencies around Vermont, among others — have stated the administration’s focus on the unemployment rate is misleading.
In fact, that argument was reiterated again on Wednesday.
“The overall unemployment rate is really a measure of the whole labor market and not people without a high school diploma who are incredibly poor and may lack transportation,” said Stacey Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “We’re talking about a different group who just face a very different labor market.”
This administration is not having it. They are all but ignoring the many voices begging it not to take action.
The New York Times on Wednesday quoted Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senate leader, as saying, “The Trump administration is driving the vulnerable into hunger just as the Christmas season approaches. It is heartless. It is cruel. It exposes a deep and shameful cruelness and hypocrisy in this administration.”
According to the Associated Press, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “Instead of combating food insecurity for millions, connecting workers to good-paying jobs or addressing income inequality, the administration is inflicting their draconian rule on millions of Americans across the nation who face the highest barriers to employment and economic stability.”
It is heartless and heart-breaking at the same time that the resounding voices of so many Americans would be ignored.
Disclosure: Executive Editor Steven Pappas, who is a member of the editorial board, is the president of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action in Barre.