Trump administration makes SNAP changes, UDMO reacts

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

After a rare bipartisan compromise with the Farm Bill signed by President Trump, the Department of Agriculture has announced it will proceed with some of the changes resisted by Congress anyway, in the form of policy changes.

Propositions for the Farm Bill previously championed by Rep. Steve King and fellow Republicans that could have posed more scrutiny on food stamp recipients was rebuked by Democrats in Congress and advocates for food insecure populations, eventually passing without such amendments.

The new change would make it much tougher for local agencies to issue waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents, referred to as ABAWDs by program administrators.

“The lack of a minimum unemployment rate has allowed local areas to qualify for waivers based solely on having relatively high rates as compared to the national average,” the proposal from the Department said. “These changes would ensure that such a large percentage of the country can no longer be waived when the economy is booming and unemployment is low.”

Jamey Whitney, CEO of Upper Des Moines Opportunity, says the food insecurity will persist no matter how low the unemployment rate is. Even at $11 an hour (almost $4 above the minimum wage), he says some area families struggle to make ends meet with wages that don’t keep up with living expenses.

“I don’t understand why this administration stands on reforming our budget on the backs of the less fortunate,” Whitney said. “You can pass all the policies you want, but when wages are stagnant, it stands to say that [a good economy] only supports those on the higher end of the wage spectrum.”

More than 80 percent of SNAP households have a gross income at or below the poverty line (a gross income of $25,100 for a family of four.)

Currently, ABAWDs can only receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits three months within a three-year period, unless they work at least 20 hours per week or are subject to other exceptions. Waivers can be issued for those individuals to extend benefits for more than three months in circumstances of high area unemployment or other difficult employment conditions relative to the national economy.

The new rule would limit the use of those waivers only to areas with at least 7 percent unemployment. It would also restrict the ability of agencies to use those waivers for more than 12 percent of their cases, and would discontinue carry-over of the number of waivers than can be used from year to year.

For reference, the last time national unemployment hit 7 percent was in 2008 as it rose to the height of the Great Recession. The last time it hit 7 percent before that was 1993.

But even in Iowa, the state tied with South Dakota for lowest unemployment at under 3 percent, it seems the growth of wages is a more pressing problem than the employment itself.

While these rule changes purport to change the availability of benefits to those not working, it may come at a cost to the working poor.

“A lot of people don’t grasp that a majority of those who get assistance from us are working individuals,” Whitney said. “This approach is placing all our financial woes on the poor.”

As the policy shift in SNAP policies from the Department of Agriculture threatens to weaken the safety net for those in dire straits, UDMO may need to absorb more of the weight as it serves the community as the fail-safe net underneath the SNAP safety net.

“Our premise behind that in our philosophy is that we live in a country with more than enough food to give to the needy,” Whitney said. Upper Des Moines Opportunity allows applicants to sign a self-declaration of their income to get food on an emergency basis.

“No one should have to worry about what they’ll eat for a day,” he said. “This bootstrap mentality is not the answer to what we’re doing now.”

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