A selection of SNAP benefit cards from a variety of states. Photo via the US Department of Agriculture Flickr
Two years ago, Barack Obama signed the latest "Farm Bill," a piece of legislation that is generally renewed every five years and funds a bevy of food- and agriculture-related government programs. The 2014 version was subject to a brutal legislative fight, and in the end, conservatives in Congress were able to get $8.7 billion in cuts to food stamps written into it.
Now some of the consequences of those cuts are coming into effect: By some estimates, upward of a million Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 are set to lose their food stamps in 2016.
The people who are bearing the brunt of the budget cuts are known as ABAWDs: able-bodied adults without dependents. If you're young, childless, and rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—more commonly known as food stamps—you're probably an ABAWD.
The category was created in 1996; the idea is that young people who don't have to worry about children or disabilities shouldn't need government assistance to survive. Generally, these Americans aren't allowed to be on SNAP for more than three months in three years, but when the economy collapsed in 2008, this restriction fell by the wayside. But now that the economy is doing better by some metrics (even if more Americans are living in poverty now than in 2008), the government evidently thinks that these individuals should be working 20 hours a week, and if they're not, they need to be trying harder to find a job.
Last year, the federal government informed the states that they should be tracking ABAWDs closely and making sure they aren't going past that three-month limit. States with persistently high unemployment can still qualify for waivers, but a few states—mostly those controlled by Republicans—are adopting restrictions on food stamps even though the federal government isn't forcing them too. In total, 40 states will have some sort of time limit on SNAP benefits in place this year, 23 for the first time since the Great Recession.
In New York State, there are over 50,000 people slated to be kicked off SNAP for three years on April 1. Several of that state's counties—including four of the five boroughs in New York City—are on waivers. But Manhattan is not, thanks to the island's wealth, and those struggling with that borough's high rent will be squeezed even further if they lose their benefits. As Margarette Purvis, the president of the Food Bank for New York City, told me, "To deny people's food based on what your neighbors make shouldn't apply here."
Purvis says that the Food Bank—the largest organization of its kind in the country—provides about 64 million free meals per year to hungry New Yorkers. But with the cuts in place, she said, Americans will be missing the equivalent of 31 million meals over the course of this year.
"When Congress passed this bill, lawmakers said that these individuals could come to food banks or pantries if they're hungry," she told me. "But I checked my spam folder, and I didn't see any email from Washington saying they were giving us more money to do that."
Purvis, a frequent critic of the cuts, said that the food banks her organization works with are already at capacity, as homelessness and hunger problems continue to exasperate New York City's lawmakers.
ABAWDs may seem to some lawmakers like people who shouldn't be on government benefits, but the young people on SNAP likely don't have any other resources. "They do not have Medicaid, and most welfare programs are for families," said Ed Bolen, an expert on food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank that studies welfare. "SNAP is their lifeline, and now they're basically out of luck."
"If you're paying your rent, then that loss of $150 a month to feed yourself is destructive," he went on. "Whether it's your housing, or if your car breaks down, it really pulls the rug out. The trip to the food banks multiple times a month they'll need to do to replace their supply... You can't find a job if you're hungry."
The young have been hard hit by years of stagnant wages and the Great Recession; one 2014 study found that after six months of job searching, 16 percent of millennials were still unemployed. Bolen argues that Congress should instead look at job search diligence as a factor—as in, how hard you're trying—rather than merely looking at how many hours a week ABAWDs work.
Bolen also thinks that states and municipalities should offer programs that can hire or professionally prepare those who are facing these inevitable cuts. New York already has a work-share program, where companies cut back on workers' hours and pay, and the state supplements their wages. Most states, however, don't have anything like that in place.
"You can't cut off first, and then there's just nothing there," Bolen said. "That's why people are getting so worked up about this."
On the 2016 campaign trail, most of the Republican candidates for the White House have called for or voted for more harsh work requirements for those on welfare programs, reiterating their party's traditional disdain for government benefits. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton criticized the 2014 Farm Bill when it was signed into law, while Bernie Sanders even voted against her husband's welfare reform legislation 20 years ago.
But for the most part, the fact that about a million Americans have lost, or are about to lose, their food stamps has gone by largely unnoticed—an unfortunate consequence of an extremely loud election cycle that doesn't seem to be quieting down anytime soon.
"What's about to befall this country is a big deal," Purvis told me, clearly frustrated. "It's saying to people, 'If you don't have a job, you don't qualify for help,' which is backwards."
This article has been updated to clarify the number of meals the Food Bank for New York City serves and to correct a quote from Margarette Purvis.
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