How Trump's Food Stamps Rules Hurt Women

"It's a huge equity issue, because women can't survive — much less succeed — if they are struggling to meet basic needs for themselves and their families."

Trump Is Quietly Taking Food Access Away from Women and Kids
Photo: Marti Sans/Stocksy

Amid headlines on impeachment, President Trump’s administration decided to tighten work requirements for food stamp recipients, a move that will likely revoke SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits for nearly 700,000 American adults. According to reporting by Reuters, President Trump has argued that, given low unemployment rates, some Americans who currently receive food stamps don’t need them, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue positioned the decision as a change that will get more “able-bodied” adults working. Securing food stamps is already a challenge for many individuals working to navigate the system, and a work requirement already exists, sneakily limiting who can access what nutritional benefits. But as of April 1, states will no longer be able to ask the federal government to waive the work requirements necessary to keep SNAP benefits, regardless of what their local economy is like, what the need is, or what unemployment rates are like in their communities.

A study by the Urban Institute found that side effects of Trump’s changes include around 982,000 students losing free and reduced school lunches, and that 2.2 million households would see monthly benefits tank by $127. The move stands to make food insecurity jump among poor people, and, as individuals such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have pointed out, rules like this “ignore the reality of American life.”

The new rule also doesn’t take into consideration the nuances of “real life,” including what jobs look like for many Americans and barriers that keep them out of the workforce, or in it and still needing assistance. Individuals with “proven disabilities,” for example, won’t be impacted, assuming they can provide the necessary medical paperwork to prove they can’t work, something many low-income individuals may not have access to. The rule doesn’t factor in people who are aggressively looking for jobs, nor does it take into consideration whether someone is working and their position simply doesn’t offer enough hours (or has hours that change each week) to meet the requirement. The Democratic staff of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee released a Twitter thread explaining the ramifications, including how revoking SNAP benefits actually weakens the economy, while food banks nervously brace for being unable to meet future community needs. What’s also left out of conversations is that Trump’s new rule could quietly, disproportionately affect women.

“The majority of people receiving SNAP benefits are already working,” said Amy Matsui of National Women’s Law Center. NWLC released a report alongside Food Research and Action Center that found that women make up 63% of adult SNAP recipients. “But by requiring people struggling paycheck to paycheck to jump through administrative hoops to keep their benefits, or imposing arbitrary minimum hours in a world of shifting schedules, the Trump administration will jeopardize access to basic nutrition assistance for hundreds of thousands of people with unstable jobs, poor health, or other barriers to work.” Matsui explained that there are many reasons women may not meet the work requirements, including working low-wage jobs where they lack bargaining power to get hours they need, or being victims of discrimination and harassment and being afraid to report for fear of losing their hours or jobs, which, under the new rule, would also mean losing their food stamps. “No one can explain to me how taking food away from people helps them work more under circumstances like these,” said Matsui. “The Trump administration is inflicting tremendous harm on women and families with these proposals.”

Alexa*, 19, is one of many women who tweeted about the Trump admin’s new rule: When Alexa was halfway through high school, her mom lost her job. “I truly don’t know what we would’ve done without food stamps,” she says. “It was pure relief being able to go to the grocery store and find food that would get us through until the next month.” She says there is such a stigma surrounding food stamps, it feels difficult to talk about them at all. “My mother, for as long as I can remember, has juggled two, and even now, three jobs. There’s only so much low-income families can do on their own before asking for assistance.” She pointed out that the rule doesn’t make sense economically or morally — an observation others have made, given that Trump's announcement came right after Thanksgiving and right before a major holiday season, when many families struggle financially anyway. “Being vulnerable and asking for help is something that’s hard enough to do, let alone sharing your struggles with others,” Alexa said. (While the SNAP changes wouldn't take effect until next spring, the announcement cast a stressful pall over an already stretched time for many families.)

“I think the biggest misconception is that women find themselves needing public benefits because they made bad decisions as individuals,” continued Matsui. “This conveniently ignores historical discrimination and structural inequities that keep women and people of color from accessing opportunity and economic security.” Matsui said the negative ramifications of the rule for women are enormous, given that they “make up the majority of those working in some of the hardest, and worst-paid, jobs in this country,” including serving food, cleaning homes or offices, and caretaking. “Cutting SNAP benefits means women have less in their budgets to buy food, so they may have to skip paying their rent or utilities, go without medications or other essentials, or run up debt to put food on the table.”

Matsui also pointed out that the rule comes into play on the heels of Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations that she explained will raise the deficit by $1.9 trillion. What the administration is spinning as a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” work-for-your-dinner opportunity is actually an issue of equity: If you’re struggling to put food on the table, showing up to work or finding work feel all the more insurmountable. For women who are already doing the best they can, the Trump administration’s new rule is another confirmation that the voices of struggling, working people are going unheard. “It's a huge equity issue, because women can't survive — much less succeed — if they are struggling to meet basic needs for themselves and their families,” concluded Matsui.

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