The current Farm Bill is set to expire this month, but lawmakers are still at an impasse about how to proceed with a new version of the law, which historically has set agricultural and food aid policy. A major point of contention holding it up is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, which has been part of the Farm Bill for over fifty years. Some 47 million Americans rely on food stamps, many of whom are children.
Conservatives have made no secret of the fact that they seek to sharply reduce or eliminate SNAP from the Farm Bill, and to this end, have displayed forceful rhetoric against food stamps. During the week of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, for example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) described food stamps as “servitude.” He said, “As humans, yeah, we do have an obligation to give people water, to give people food, to give people health care … but it’s not a right because once you conscript people and say, ‘Oh, it’s a right,’ then really you’re in charge, it’s servitude, you’re in charge of me and I’m supposed to do whatever you tell me to do.”
In his words, Paul displays no understanding of why food aid is so critical for so many Americans, particularly given the failure of the current economy to enable every person to be completely self sufficient. To qualify for food stamps, a three-person family’s gross monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,069 (about $24,800 a year). While people of many backgrounds rely on food stamps, African Americans do so disproportionately: 22 percent of all food stamp recipients are Black, but only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population is Black, as the Washington Post noted in July.
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Thus to claim that food aid for poor people is akin to humans keeping other humans in bondage is a careless denial of both the reality of slavery as well as the struggle many people of color experience in the current economy.
And while conservatives lead in this rhetoric, the willingness to cut food stamps is found among moderate Democrats as well—revealing that this longstanding program for the poor may be very vulnerable. Take, for example, the story of Cynthia Gilkeson, a woman of color living in Newburgh, New York, with her two teenage children. Now 49, Gilkeson began working construction at the age of 17 but has had to switch her line of work due to a knee injury. She relies on food stamps for her children.
“Me and my kids wouldn’t be able to survive without food stamps,” Gilkeson said. “I would have to work three jobs.” She often buys bulk food from Wal-Mart so she can stretch the food stamp dollars further for her children—even though she disagrees with Wal-Mart’s political stances. She is currently studying pre-law in hopes of earning a degree that would build her earning potential. Her two teenagers are college bound, and she has a 19-year-old son who is currently in college.
Gilkeson is also a member leader of an organization called Community Voices Heard (CVH), a New York group that is comprised of women of color, many of whom rely on public benefits like food stamps. CVH has a sister group that is authorized to lobby but does not typically back candidates.
But recently, the group campaigned hard for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), because he was believed to be a stronger advocate for public benefits. Yet to CVH’s dismay, Rep. Maloney, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, chose to vote with Republicans in favor of a $20 billion cut to food stamps earlier this year. Seemingly, outrage from his constituents led Rep. Maloney to ultimately vote against the steep cut when it came to a floor vote—though 24 Democrats actually voted for it.
Gilkeson and other CVH member-activists have been deeply disappointed in Maloney’s committee vote and do not feel confident in his advocacy for people who are facing tough times. “In how they’re dealing with food stamps, [politicians] just don’t take people like me into consideration,” Gilkeson said.
Her story is part of a larger narrative: employment is disproportionately low for people of color in the United States. Economist Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote in the New York Times, “The raw numbers tell much of the story: There has been no significant closing of the gap between the income of African-Americans (or Hispanics) and white Americans the last 30 years. In 2011, the median income of [B]lack families was $40,495, just 58 percent of the median income of white families.”
Yet both the rhetoric against food stamps and the willingness to cut the program reveal a lack of understanding of the role they play in helping families like Gilkeson’s stay afloat.
“It’s hard to live this way,” she says. “There are times when my kids are hungry but I can’t buy more food until the food stamp check arrives.”
Tennessee in February became the latest state to see the drug testing of welfare recipients fail, after less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the program's first 18 months.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and ten other Republican governors signed a letter Monday urging Congress to allow drug testing to determine eligibility for food assistance—a policy that has fallen flat everywhere it’s been implemented.
Walker was joined in his call by GOP governors from Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The group claimed that states have the right to drug test users of social safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.
Though at least 15 states drug test those enrolled in or applying for public assistance programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare, the federal government does not allow the same for SNAP.
“Since SNAP and other welfare programs typically have job training requirements as a core element, we write today to express our sincere confidence that drug testing recipients of SNAP benefits is not only lawful, but will aid in our ability to move individuals off of this welfare program and back into the workforce as productive members of their communities,” asserted the governors’ letter.
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Tennessee in February became the latest state to see the drug testing of TANF recipients fail, after less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the program’s first 18 months. Of the 7,600 welfare applicants since the implementation of North Carolina’s drug testing policy, there were 89 people required to take a drug test and 21 tested positive.
Twelve out of 466 applicants tested positive for drugs from 2012 to 2013 after Utah Republicans required testing for those receiving benefits.
Nevertheless, the two-year state budget signed by Walker in 2015 included a provision requiring drug testing for food assistance applicants. Walker preemptively sued the federal government in 2015 to allow the change, arguing that those who use food assistance “are ‘welfare recipients’ and therefore may be tested and sanctioned for the use of controlled substances.”
In a statement announcing the governors’ letter, Walker lauded legislation introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) that would allow states to drug test to determine SNAP eligibility.
The Wisconsin governor and failed GOP presidential candidate claimed that such a move “makes it easier for recipients with substance abuse to move from government dependence to true independence,” and that he looks “forward to working with [Aderholt] on this crucial issue and implementing this common-sense reform in Wisconsin.”
Critics, however, say Aderholt’s measure is an attempt to further stigmatize those living in poverty.
“Why aren’t my Republican colleagues calling for drug testing for wealthy CEOs and oil company executives who receive taxpayer subsidies?” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said in February during debate on the House floor, according to the Huffington Post. “Why is it that they always pick on poor people? It’s a lousy thing to do.”
Federal guidelines mandating that food assistance recipients find a job or lose their benefits kicked in last month for residents of 21 states, leaving as many as one million at risk of food insecurity—a result that owes no small debt to the welfare reform efforts of former President Bill Clinton's administration and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) in the '90s.
Federal guidelines mandating that food assistance recipients find a job or lose their benefits kicked in last month for residents of 21 states, leaving as many as one million at risk of food insecurity—a result that owes no small debt to the welfare reform efforts of former President Bill Clinton’s administration and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) in the ’90s.
Work requirements havebeen part of welfare programs for nearly two decades, but the high unemployment rates of the Great Recession led dozens of states to qualify for and accept a federal waiver from the mandates because there simply were not enough jobs available. Today, the economy has been improving, albeit slowly: In many states, able-bodied food stamp recipients without dependents willonce again face work requirements to access food assistance as those waivers expire, or states choose not to accept them in part or whole.
As Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out atSlate, Bill Clinton and John Kasich worked together in the 1990s to lead the charge on the very welfare reform measure that stands to boot so many off of food stamps 20 years later.
Bill Clinton ran for president in the early ’90s touting a welfare reform platform that aimed to “put an end to welfare as we know it” in the United States by mandating a work requirement for public assistance programs. “We’ll give them all the help they need for up to two years. But after that, if they’re able to work, they’ll have to take a job in the private sector, or start earning their way through community service,” Clinton promised.
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As Bill Clinton had promised, PRWORA established strict work requirements for those seeking to use welfare programs, such as food assistance. Under the new law, able-bodied adults without dependents could only use three months of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in three years, unless recipients worked, volunteered, or participated in education or career training programs for at least 80 hours per month. States with high unemployment were allowed to apply for a federal waiver of those rules.
The measure was controversial enough that three senior officials resigned from the administration in protest of the law.
“I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America. I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction,” Peter B. Edelman, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, said of his resignation at the time.
Analyses conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in 2001 on the impact of PRWORA confirmed what Edelman and other critics had suspected: that Clinton’s welfare reform measure had failed on many fronts. EPI’s analysis suggested that poverty had “not been reduced among the kinds of families most affected by welfare reform” and that although many former welfare recipients were working, they remained unable to move up the job ladder to improve their economic well-being.
Nevertheless, on the campaign trail, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who helped lead the original push behind PRWORA in the ’90s, has pointed to his work to reform welfare as one of his “great accomplishments.”
“This is one of those successes that when we get old and we’re all in our rocking chairs, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Thank God we were able to make America a little bit better,’” Kasich said of the law when it was passed.
More recently, Kasich has again pointed to his work on the issue as a critical component of what qualifies him to be president. “What I tell people is yeah, I’ve been a reformer. I’ve been involved in more fights than you can imagine but with great accomplishments—whether it’s jobs, whether it’s welfare reform, fixing my own state—so I just tell them that these problems we have, they can be fixed, and people seem to be very positive and hopeful when they leave,” Kasich said during a Tuesday rally in New Hampshire, according to Politico.
During his tenure as governor, Kasich has pushed to reinstate work requirements in much of Ohio, even as the state’s economy has been doing so poorly that it qualified for relief from the mandate in 2015.
This comes as little surprise, given that while speaking on the House floor in 1996 in defense of his bill, Kasich claimed that requiring welfare users to work was only fair. The legislation “says, look, you have got to go to work; you have got to get trained. You cannot be on welfare forever,” he asserted.
Kasich has faced much pushback for using the waivers inserted into PRWORA for states experiencing high unemployment rates unequally by only obtaining them for some regions of the state, a pattern critics say disproportionately harmed people of color. According to Mother Jones, despite having qualified for a full waiver in 2014, the Kasich administration only accepted a partial one:
In 2014, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) had the option to waive time limits on food stamps for the entire state. Due to a struggling economy and high unemployment, Ohio had qualified for and accepted this statewide waiver from the US Department of Agriculture every year since 2007, including during most of Kasich’s first term as governor. But this time, Kasich rejected the waiver for the next two years in most of the state’s 88 counties. His administration did accept them for 16 counties in 2014 and for 17 counties in 2015. Most of these were rural counties with small and predominantly white populations. Urban counties and cities, most of which had high minority populations, did not get waivers.
Kasich’s favored working requirements returned to the rest of the state, leaving many without the benefits they needed to be food secure. More than 10,000 Ohio residents lost food assistance in early 2014 after the work requirements were reinstated, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The decision led to stark disparity in who received food stamps in Ohio. In the 16 counties selected by Kasich, 95 percent of food stamp users were white, but before the policy, reports Mother Jones, the state’s overall percentage of white users was much lower, at 65 percent: “[S]ix months into the new system, the six counties with the highest rate of terminating food stamps for able-bodied, childless adults were all counties populated mostly by minorities.”
Ohio’s lagging assistance policies may have contributed to its poor performance in ensuring its residents have proper access to food. Between 2012 and 2014, the state had a food insecurity rate of roughly 17 percent, higher than the national average of 14 percent, according to a September 2015 analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Kasich’s presidential campaign website claims the “historic reforms to federal welfare programs” he helped accomplish are part of his platform for “lifting up the most vulnerable Americans.”
Meanwhile, current Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton was a proponent of PRWORA during her husband’s administration, during her time as a senator, and as late as her 2008 presidential run.
In 1999, Clinton lauded the welfare reform measure for helping push recipients to work. “It’s important to recognize, though, that simply passing a law requiring welfare recipients to find work would have failed to fulfill the President’s promise,” Clinton wrote of the law, according to BuzzFeed. “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.”
As a U.S. senator in 2002, Clinton again touted the role PRWORA had in pushing welfare recipients to work, claiming it was an effort to “substitute dignity for dependence” and that those who got jobs were “no longer deadbeats.”
In her 2003 memoir Living History, Clinton again offered a defense of her husband’s welfare reform decision, noting that although it was “far from perfect” she had agreed that it should be passed and worked to make that happen after the president vetoed the first two proposed reform bills.
“I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage—though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system,” Clinton wrote. “I felt, on balance, that this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.”
In 2008 while on the campaign trail, Clinton again fell back on familiar rhetoric. “Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance,” Hillary Clinton said during an interview with the New York Times in which she discussed her husband’s welfare reform measure. “It should not be considered an anti-poverty program.”
Since then, Clinton hasn’t been as vocal on the issue, but in late 2013 she did bring up problems with food stamps during an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, seemingly referencing a federal budget battle that stood to cut food assistance benefits.
“I think we should be looking at the work that we have today,” Clinton said at the time, explaining that focus should be on the issues that matter to voters, not on whether she would run for president. “Our unemployment rate is too high. We have people getting kicked off food stamps who are in terrible economic straits. Small business is not getting credit, I could go on and on, so I think we ought to pay attention to what’s happening right now.”
In June 2015, Clinton again brought up food stamps. “No one who works an honest job in America should have to live in poverty,” thepresidential candidate told a convention of fast-food workers in Detroit. “No man or woman who works hard to feed America’s families should have to be on food stamps to feed your own families.”
Despite numerousthink pieces and calls for Clinton to address her husband’s welfare reforms specifically, it does not appear that she has directly addressed the topic on the campaign trail during the 2016 race.
When asked directly by Bloomberg in May 2015 about whether she would distance herself from her husband’s welfare overhaul, a spokesperson from Clinton’s campaign provided a statement claiming the candidate would address the issue “in the coming months”:
Hillary Clinton has a long record fighting for everyday Americans and their families, and she is running to make sure all families are not only able to get ahead, but stay ahead. In the coming months she will discuss more details on her approach to addressing children and families living in poverty, including how best to support those families who rely on the safety net of welfare to temporarily keep their families afloat during the hardest of times, as well as other ideas to further strengthen families and help them move forward.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign website does include a promise to “preserve, protect, and strengthen” Medicaid and Social Security, two other social safety-net programs, but does not reference the Clinton administration’s PRWORA reforms.
Her economic platform instead names “raising incomes for hardworking Americans” as the “defining economic challenge of our time,” noting that “too many families are working harder and harder, but still not getting ahead.” She proposes doing so by providing tax relief for families, raising the minimum wage, and supporting equal pay policies, among other things.
Clinton’s Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has criticized Hillary Clinton’s past support of welfare reform policies, as well as the reforms themselves, but has also faced criticism for not adequately taking on the issue.
Anti-poverty experts, however, suggest that the Clinton administration’s welfare reform measures are an issue Hillary Clinton needs to take on. “Welfare reform needs to be revisited,’’ Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University toldBloomberg. “I think Hillary needs to stand up and say, ‘My husband and the Republicans in the 90s really thought they’d put together a package that was going to fix welfare and poverty but didn’t fix either one.’ She needs to call America to the barricades in the struggle against deep poverty.’’