As Congress considers stricter work requirements for many of the more than 40 million food stamp recipients nationwide, food and anti-hunger activists say the changes could hurt everyone from the program’s beneficiaries to grocery store operators.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, is part of the $867 billion farm bill.
The current legislation expires Oct. 1, and reauthorization typically is a bipartisan effort. But the new proposal has split federal elected officials along party lines.
Republicans say the revisions could help break the poverty cycle by connecting food stamp recipients with jobs to make them self-sufficient.
Democrats say the current system has worked for years and that placing more demands on recipients — many of whom already are having trouble finding jobs — would be a mistake.
While the additional work requirement proposal has support among majority Republicans in the House who consider it part of a long-running effort to reform federal public assistance programs, its fate is uncertain in the Senate, where the GOP majority is smaller.
“If the goal is to have strong and healthy communities across our region, then taking away a basic need — access to food — is really unconscionable,” said Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit that works with health and human service providers. “Most certainly on Long Island, it would increase poverty and it would increase hunger.”
But Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he supports the bill’s “realistic” work requirements.
“We must ensure that those who rely on government support, such as the SNAP program, have the opportunity and encouragement they need to move towards independence if possible,” Zeldin said in a statement. “Realistic work requirements with exceptions coupled with new job training and education opportunities ensure the government is providing a hand up, not a handout.”
More than 52,000 people in Nassau County received $6.4 million worth of SNAP benefits in January, according to the most recent data available from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. In Suffolk, more than 106,000 recipients got $13.79 million in food stamps.
The current SNAP program requires adults who are 18 to 59 years of age to work at least part time or take a job if one is offered. It does not apply to those who are pregnant, disabled or otherwise exempt.
Able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents could lose their benefits after three months if they have not found a job that employs them for 80 hours a month.
The biggest proposed changes to the SNAP program, which derives from the original food stamp program made permanent in 1964, would involve work requirements.
Under the new proposal, the work requirement would expand for adults ages 18 to 59, obligating them to work part time or enroll in a work training program for 20 hours a week. Seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children younger than 6 years old, and people with disabilities would be exempt. The proposal also includes $1 billion annually to fund job training programs.
The Trump administration also has floated proposals to cut $213 billion in food stamp funding over the next 10 years, give recipients a “food box” of nonperishable items purchased from wholesalers by the government, and drug test some beneficiaries.
The Congressional Budget Office says the additional work requirements alone could decrease SNAP participation by up to 1 million people over the next decade, although Democrats say the figure could be as high as 2 million.
“What this is going to do is create more paperwork requirements, which is literally only intended to get more people to fail to be able to qualify for SNAP because they haven’t filed the right paperwork,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said.
Republicans have touted the proposed changes as pathways out of poverty and into jobs, possibly through state training programs.
“Any guise to make this program more ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’ that really just makes it harder for local families to put basic food on the kitchen table will be nonstarters,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
The House Agriculture Committee, however, voted along party lines on April 18 to move the farm bill to the House floor.
“If you set aside the SNAP portion, the rest of the farm bill is reflective of the traditional bipartisan work that this committee has always been known for,” committee chairman Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) said at an April 12 news conference in Washington.
But, Conaway said, “my Democrat colleagues decided that they wanted to do something — or nothing — on SNAP. That’s unacceptable for my team, so we’re moving forward to get this bill done.”
Sherry Tomasky, director of public affairs for Hunger Solutions New York, said her organization doesn’t see how imposing additional work requirements equates with ending hunger.
“We don’t understand how taking food away from people helps them find a job,” Tomasky said. “I think that this idea that people choose to decline employment is not at all based in reality.”
In the House, Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) oppose the proposed version of the farm bill.
“It really comes across as just being mean-spirited because putting food on the table is a basic need for any family,” Suozzi said.
King said he does not believe the bill, as it currently stands, will pass Congress. “I think mainly it’s to score some political points with the Farm Belt,” King said. “It’s going to hurt Long Island.”
While the Senate has not yet taken up its version of the bill, Gillibrand has introduced a “SNAP for KIDS Act” to expand benefits for children.
The Republicans’ proposed changes to the SNAP program already have made an impact on immigrant families because they fear it could affect future chances for citizenship.
“If the parents are afraid to apply, then the children will not eat,” said Patrick Young, program director for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood.
Brick-and-mortar food retailers say the proposed additional work requirements and the potential “food box” would affect them.
Retail operators say they’re already facing pressure from online grocers and higher minimum-wage requirements. The state minimum wage in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties is $11, and will rise to $15 on Dec. 31, 2021.
Potentially fewer food stamp beneficiaries and the possibility that the government could buy the “food box” items through wholesalers could cause the retailers to lose more customers, said Jay Peltz, general counsel and vice president of government relations for the Food Industry Alliance of New York State Inc.
Matthew Cohen, vice president of government affairs and communications for the Long Island Association, a trade group, said the farm bill’s potential changes could especially affect smaller retailers.
“If there’s less money coming into the store, there’s less money for cashiers and stock clerks,” said Amy Agiato, director of nutrition and maternity services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. “The impact is not just on the individual families. It’s on the community at large.”
Ashley Torres, 19, a single mother from Blue Point, said she wasn’t sure yet how the potential changes could affect her family, although she said she could be forced to depend on food pantries and donations if her SNAP benefits were cut.
Torres has received food stamps for herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Annmarie Cimmino, since late February. She said she is looking for a cosmetology job and plans to go back to school to earn her GED.
Torres said she receives about $100 a month and buys basic foods, often at King Kullen in Blue Point, such as chopped meat and chicken about once a week.
“I try to go for things on sale,” she said.
In January, more than 2.8 million New Yorkers received Food Stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Recipients including low-income working people, senior citizens and the disabled receive electronic benefits they can use like cash to purchase food. Eligibility and benefit levels are based on household size, income and other factors. Maximum monthly benefits range from $192 for an individual to $1,153 for a household with eight people.
- New York State: 2,831,503 people in 1,580,152 households received of SNAP benefits valued at $384,734,259.
- Nassau County: 52,192 people in 34,033 households received $6,443,435 in SNAP benefits.
- Suffolk County: 106,321 people in 62,883 households received $13,789,698 in SNAP benefits.
Source: New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance