Republican SNAP Proposals Will Disproportionately Impact Indian Country
The immense challenges facing Native American communities—foremost among them crippling levels of poverty and persistent lack of employment opportunities in Indian Country—are rarely mentioned or considered when policy solutions to hunger are debated and legislated. And too often, this vacuum produces policies that do not adequately respond to the needs of food insecure Native communities, or worse, have the potential to deepen and perpetuate hunger, poverty, and health disparities.
The changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) being proposed in the House Republican Farm Bill are a prime example. Approximately 25% of American Indian and Alaska Native households receive SNAP benefits. The program is a critical lifeline, and so considerable attention should be given to the impact of any SNAP policy recommendation on Native communities. But the highly partisan House proposals for SNAP disregard the needs of Native communities and will certainly create an undeniable barrier that threatens access to SNAP and takes food away from Native households struggling to feed themselves.
The GOP bill seeks to impose harsher work requirements, expanding the category of recipients expected to work and shortening the time an unemployed individual has to find a job before severe penalties kick in. This harsh and unforgiving rule ignores the reality that the Native American unemployment rate is nearly three times the US average. Jobs—much less well-paying ones—are scarce on reservations.
Under current law, states may request permission from the federal government to waive work requirements in areas where unemployment is persistently high. And some states—those where state-tribal relationships are positive—have historically requested and received waivers to include reservation lands, specifically because jobs can be extremely difficult to find in these communities. But there are those, federal and state-level legislators alike, who want to completely do away with waivers, and certainly the unique circumstances of Native households are not factoring into their calculations.
Mandating work requirements won’t magically increase employment rates in Indian Country. Unfortunately, neither will the mandate for states to create Employment and Training (E&T) programs. The Congressional Budget Office has already confirmed that there is not enough money in the House GOP bill to create and sufficiently scale SNAP E&T programs to cover everyone subject to the expanded work requirements. In addition, the mandate also doesn’t specify anything about the proximity these job training programs must be to the people who are required to participate in them. In other words: there will not be enough available slots to meet the need, and those unemployed adults who are most likely to benefit will be those who live nearby. But most reservations are, by definition, remote communities far from larger cities where E&T programs are most likely to be located. Once again, tribal communities will be left behind, which means having to go without critically needed SNAP assistance.
Any cuts—without specific exemption for Indian Country citizens—will have a disproportionate impact on tribes. Those Native Americans who get kicked off SNAP will most likely turn to the other major federal food program operating in Indian Country: the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). History shows that cuts to SNAP yield sharp increases in demand for FDPIR, as we saw in 2013 when a temporary boost in SNAP benefits included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expired. Native food policy advocates at the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, a key MAZON partner, expect the demand for FDPIR to increase anywhere between 25-40% due to the proposed SNAP changes in the House farm bill. With no additional funding allocated to FDPIR, the GOP bill seems designed to leave already vulnerable Native families hungry and worse off.
MAZON is proud to work alongside Native advocates as the only non-Native organization to join the Native Farm Bill Coalition to vigilantly guard against harmful changes to SNAP that will only exacerbate the challenges Native communities face. We are proud to stand alongside our partners to try to advance Native-led changes that will lead to more equitable and more just food systems in Native communities.
 Currently adults without dependents between the age 18-49 must meet SNAP work requirements. The House bill would require adults with school-aged children as well as those between the ages of 50 and 59 to prove every month that they are working or in a training program at least 20 hours a week in order to receive SNAP. Individuals who don’t meet these requirements within a month would lose food assistance for one year. Additional failures to comply would mean a participant could lose benefits for three years.
 An alternative to SNAP, FDPIR operates solely on Indian reservations, tribal lands and Alaska Native villages, and provides a monthly food box to about 90,000 eligible households on 276 federally-recognized tribes that have limited access to grocery stores and SNAP offices.