Trump's food stamp cuts are cruel politics and bad economics
The move will hurt hundreds of thousands of Americans and hamstring a critical recession response mechanism
On Wednesday, the Trump administration made a unilateral policy change to cut back the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, with the result being that hundreds of thousands of Americans who previously received the benefits will now be ineligible.
In the grand scheme, this isn't that surprising: The Republican Party has tried again and again to cut SNAP and the rest of the anti-poverty safety net — most recently under the guidance of former Republican Speaker of the House and "serious wonk" Paul Ryan. What is noteworthy is that President Trump was supposed to herald a different kind of Republican Party: more skeptical of elites, more sympathetic to the hard-working "forgotten" people. That GOP efforts to strip struggling Americans of aid have continued or even increased in intensity under Trump simply throws the destructiveness of this obsession into particularly sharp relief.
Let's begin with the basic policy and economics. SNAP is one of the country's most important safety net programs, providing aid to roughly 40 million people per month in 2018, and considerably more in the depths of the last recession. Under current law, able-bodied adults without children or other dependents are already limited to receiving SNAP benefits for three months every three years, though they can receive them for longer if they are either working or in training programs. More important for our purposes here, states are also able to get waivers from the federal work requirements to allow those specific recipients to stay on the program longer when unemployment is higher. The amount of waivers issued jumped after the 2008 crisis, but is now back to its pre-crisis norm.
After Republicans in Congress tried and failed to slash SNAP in 2018, the Trump administration has moved to use its executive power leeway to strangle the program. Wednesday's announcement was the first of three planned changes: Basically, the White House is going to make those state waivers harder to get, requiring counties to have at least a 6 percent unemployment rate before states can waive the work requirements there.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates this change will kick 688,000 people off of SNAP. And Department Secretary Sonny Perdue was explicit about the White House's reasoning: "Unemployment is 3.6 percent, the lowest in 50 years," Perdue said. "There are currently more job openings than people to fill them. ... Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work."
What's wrong with this logic? While it's true that there are currently more job openings than unemployed people, what Perdue doesn’t mention is that this almost never happens. The last time job openings pulled even with the unemployed was almost 20 years ago; in between, the number of people looking for work significantly outpaced available jobs.
It's also important to note that unemployment statistics tend to chronically undercount the number of Americans who actually want and need employment. Bad jobs that pay low wages have also metastasized as a portion of the workforce since the last time unemployment got this low. And, of course, the 3.6 percent unemployment rate and the ratio of job seekers to open jobs are both national statistics, hiding a lot of variation from place to place and region to region.
It gets worse.
Economic analysis has long recognized SNAP as one of the government's best policies in terms of stimulating more economic growth. Because SNAP benefits go to Americans struggling to make ends meet, they immediately spend the money, which enters the economy as additional consumption, boosting business revenues and increasing job creation. Republicans often complain about how SNAP's spending automatically went up during the Great Recession as incomes fell and more Americans' qualified for the program. But this too is a good thing: it means SNAP immediately steps in to boost the economy during a downtown, without anyone having to wait for Congress to proactively pass new laws.
Finally, at the individual level, people are rather obviously better able to work when they have three reliable and nutritious meals a day. Cutting them off from that aid via work requirements only hurts their ability to participate in the workforce. The same holds true for health care, through programs like Medicaid, which the Trump administration is also trying to cut via work requirements. And it's true of housing, where the White House's latest appointed leader is arguing that people should somehow be required to achieve financial stability before they are provided with reliable housing.
President Trump may rail against elites, but his administration's executive actions make it clear he holds struggling Americans in equal contempt. His denunciations of those elites almost always come in purely cultural terms, while at the same time he cuts their taxes, deregulates their behemoth industries, and carries out an assault on SNAP and the rest of the welfare state. He is as unable as his supposed opponents in both parties to imagine participation in the U.S. economy as anything other than a kind of bloody Nietzschean thunderdome.
Trump's attacks on SNAP and other programs will make the lives of many Americans worse, and they will kneecap the very economy he boasts so much of resuscitating.
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