Commentary Law and Policy

Will Trump Starve SNAP Households to Get His Wall?

Rebecca Vallas

Even with February benefits protected, the Trump administration’s chaotic handling of the shutdown is starting to create problems for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

President Trump’s government shutdown has now officially attained notoriety as the longest shutdown in the nation’s history. Trump has threatened that it could last “months” or even “years” if he doesn’t get his racist border wall. But if the shutdown continues even a few more weeks, we’ll see hunger in the United States skyrocket as key nutrition assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—run short on funds.

The nation’s largest food assistance program, SNAP helps about 38 million people in 19 million households put food on the table each month. Nearly half are children.

Facing criticism that funding for SNAP was set to run out at the end of January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week that it had cobbled together enough money to pay February benefits. But if the shutdown drags on past that, the Trump administration doesn’t appear to have a long-term plan for keeping SNAP up and running.

The agency had nothing to say about March in its announcement—and apparently SNAP benefits will end altogether if the shutdown drags on.

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Depending on how the Trump administration handles the looming shortfall in SNAP, each family’s food assistance could be cut by 40 percent in March. That is if USDA were to spread the cuts evenly among all SNAP households.

For context here: This is a program that provides an average of only $1.40 per person, per meal. Think for a second about that as your food budget. In fact, SNAP benefits are so meager, they already run out for most households by the third week of the month.

If cuts to SNAP—or an outright halt to benefits—do come to pass, hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers struggling to make ends meet without a paycheck could face a double whammy. On top of no income, they could receive no food assistance to help them and their families stay afloat.

Federal workers are already flooding food banks for assistance in feeding their families. Due to the surge, some food banks have taken to hosting special events to distribute food to furloughed federal workers. And with over 350,000 furloughed federal workers living in the D.C. region, some local food banks, such as the Capital Area Food Bank in Northeast Washington, are reportedly scrambling to get area grocers to help shore up dwindling food supplies.

And this is before any cuts to SNAP have taken effect.

Even with February benefits protected, the Trump administration’s chaotic handling of the shutdown is starting to create problems for SNAP. For example, more than 2,500 grocery stores and other retailers have stopped accepting SNAP benefits because the federal government failed to renew the necessary paperwork before the shutdown took effect on December 22. Families seeking to buy food with SNAP benefits will end up being turned away in the meantime.

If the shutdown does force cuts in SNAP, the more than 250,000 supermarkets, grocery stores, and other retailers that participate in the program will suffer as well, with far-reaching negative economic consequences, particularly in hard-hit communities. A 2015 Center for American Progress analysis found that every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP results in nearly 11,500 jobs lost, as families’ reduced food purchases create a negative ripple effect throughout the economy.

Meanwhile, SNAP isn’t the only nutrition program running short on funds due to the president’s shutdown. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—better known as WIC—is running dry too, with states already tapping emergency reserves to keep programs going. Though USDA has made assurances that the program is protected through mid-February, after that we could start to see a tidal wave of babies left holding empty bottles and women unable to feed hungry children.

It should come as little surprise that Trump is willing to let struggling workers and families starve while he plays politics over his wall. In fact, two days before he shut down the government—just three days before Christmas—his administration announced a proposal to take food away from 755,000 people, by making it harder for unemployed and underemployed workers to access SNAP.

Some of the backstory here. Trump made no secret of his desire to see SNAP dismantled during the recent debate over the Farm Bill—the mammoth piece of legislation that authorizes SNAP, as well as a bunch of farm programs and agriculture spending. He vocally backed the House Republican plan, which would have stripped some 2 million people of food assistance, as well as 265,000 hungry kids of free school meals.

But because that plan was so odious and cruel, not only did zero Democrats vote for it in the House, it was dead on arrival in the Senate, even among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Ultimately, when the Senate struck a bipartisan deal that didn’t slash food assistance, forcing Trump’s hand, he wasn’t happy about it.

But as we know, Trump doesn’t give up when he can’t get his cruel agenda through Congress. Case in point: health care. After Republican leaders in Congress failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut Medicaid legislatively, Trump has spent the past year-plus doing everything he can to sabotage both through executive action. Now he’s using the same playbook for SNAP, sidestepping Congress to slash food assistance by fiat.

As with so much of his agenda, Trump’s proposed cuts to food assistance are the opposite of what the people want. Polling by my organization, the Center for American Progress, and GBA Strategies finds that two-thirds of voters oppose cutting food assistance through SNAP, with opposition cutting across party lines to include Republicans and even Trump’s own supporters.

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed cuts to food assistance come as we mark the one-year anniversary of his deeply unpopular tax law, which gave more in tax breaks to the top 1 percent than the entire SNAP program costs.

The Trump administration estimates that the proposed cuts will save $15 billion in SNAP over the coming decade, by making struggling workers hungrier. By comparison, raising the minimum wage to just $12 an hour—not even the $15 we know it needs to be at—would save nearly four times as much by helping workers earn more so they’re better able to afford food.

Whether Trump ends up letting workers and families starve while he has a prolonged temper tantrum, or dismantling food assistance outright via deliberate sabotage, his betrayal of the “forgotten man and woman” for whom he pledged to fight during his campaign couldn’t be clearer. 

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