Hunger Isn’t Productive

Why cutting SNAP benefits is a moral error
Two girls receive food at an outdoor soup kitchen in Washington. (CNS photo/Jim West)

Come April, many Americans will have a much harder time finding food, thanks to the major cuts to SNAP announced by the Trump administration earlier this month. A new eligibility rule approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will strip some 700,000 people of their monthly benefits—typically just $127 per month, or $1.40 per meal—in order to save the federal government a meager $5 billion over five years. For reference, that’s the same figure Trump is demanding for his border wall. It’s only the first of three planned rollbacks the administration is intent on implementing before the 2020 election. Taken together, these changes are expected to purge 3 million people, including a million children, from the rolls. Even school-lunch benefits tied to SNAP enrollment status are endangered.

In its public comments on SNAP “reform,” the Trump administration has callously revived old myths that demonize the poor as lazy, undeserving freeloaders. It claims that the rules—which are said to affect only so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents,” but actually end up harming entire poor communities indirectly—are aimed at “restoring the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue claimed that “government dependency” was “never intended to be a way of life.” Americans are a “generous people,” he said, but their kindness has its limits: “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”

It’s a bit of an understatement to point out, as Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro recently did, that making cuts to the nation’s largest food-assistance program by executive order rather than legislative consensus takes the country “in the wrong direction.” In the richest nation on earth, hunger remains a daily scourge. Trump’s own Agriculture Department estimates that more than 14 million Americans suffer from food insecurity. Wealthy Americans like Trump and Perdue cynically contend that making people hungrier will somehow transform them into more productive workers. But studies have demonstrated that tying nutritional benefits to more stringent work requirements actually increases poverty, while disproportionately punishing people of color and producing no permanent gains in employment.

As with so many other policies of the Trump administration, human flourishing isn’t really the point. Cruelty is—especially when it can be inflicted on the constituencies of political opponents. The grinch-like timing of the announcement didn’t pass unnoticed by journalists and anti-poverty advocates, whose condemnation of the administration’s meanspiritedness mirrors the 140,000 public comments, overwhelmingly negative, that were submitted to the Agriculture Department before the rule was adopted.

Castro was right to call the new measures “stupid.” But they’re also vicious. The failure to imagine the real conditions of people without the means to feed themselves, and the refusal to see the poor as fellow citizens worthy of dignity and respect, is a grave moral error, one all too typical of this administration and the rich men who direct it.

Published in the January 2020 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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