Last month, Speaker Paul Ryan claimed that 12 million able-bodied Americans are “gaming the system” by not working and receiving government handouts via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Days later, he issued a statement claiming that increasing work requirements for food stamps is necessary with the justification that the last time unemployment was this low—4 percent in the year 2000—there were only 17 million people on SNAP instead of today’s 42 million, drawing a direct causal link between unemployment and SNAP that is simply not supportable.
Context matters here. Our economy has changed dramatically over the past 18 years. The world in which we live is vastly different from the one Speaker Ryan and his allies describe, and the solutions he proposes fail to align with the current reality of poverty in America.
Paul Ryan references the unemployment rate in 2000 in an attempt to claim that the number of people on SNAP in 2018 should also be proportionate to what it was in 2000. But let’s look at what happened in this country between the year 2000 and now. Between the Dot Com Bust and Great Recession, the past 18 years have left millions of Americans behind. Today, an additional 15 million people live in poverty—almost double the number in 2000—roughly 14% of all Americans. And on top of that, baby boomers are aging into poverty: without the employer-sponsored pension plans their parents’ generation relied on, they’re retiring into financial uncertainty. Massive upheavals in the economy and generational financial shifts are unignorable factors in SNAP numbers being more than double what they were in 2000.
So why is work not a clear fix? The majority of people on SNAP who can work are working, but it’s still not enough to make ends meet. A groundbreaking study by the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities found disturbing trends: Between 2002 and 2017, annual incomes among workers who rely on SNAP failed to increase at all. Perhaps most troubling in light of Speaker Ryan’s comments, despite working a minimum of 20-30 hours per week or more in accordance with current work requirements for over a year, a whopping 28.6% of SNAP recipients remained trapped below the poverty line.
And while there are 6.6 million open jobs, huge numbers of them are concentrated in areas where the cost of living is prohibitive for low-wage workers. If you can’t afford to live where the jobs are, you cannot work in those jobs.
The strength of SNAP in its current form is that it ensures that Americans who are struggling are still able to put food on the table. Hungry people cannot get ahead: they cannot study nor work to their fullest potential when they lack energy or are in fear of not knowing when they’ll have their next meal. SNAP provides Americans a modicum of stability while they work to get back on their feet.
SNAP isn’t a workforce development program. It’s part of the social safety net designed to ensure that no American goes hungry. Speaker Ryan’s claims not only lack context, they refute evidence and ignore the reality of those who struggle in this country.