Working Families Facing Hunger Need Relief, Not More Red Tape (Ms. Magazine)

Abby J. Leibman and Sarah Pratter
December 23, 2020

This article was first published in Ms. Magazine:

The COVID-19 pandemic has put our country through unprecedented pain. While the federal government has finally begun to respond, with a new stimulus package in sight and vaccine distribution in progress, we are still facing untold suffering, loss of life and economic distress—including truly shocking levels of hunger in our communities.

We and our colleagues across the nation have been fighting to protect SNAP from both public assaults and back-room efforts to decimate this vital program. Caring for America’s most vulnerable has been politicized and those in need have been viciously attacked with rhetoric designed to demean, shame and judge people who are simply trying to survive—including many of our essential workers. It is no secret that the majority of those struggling with poverty in this country are women and their children, and these rhetorical attacks are tinged with sexism and racism.

At a time when more families than ever are struggling to put food on the table, the federal government’s help has been too little and too late. Mitch McConnell and his cronies used their demeaning rhetoric in delaying desperately needed relief and, instead, prioritized tax breaks and liability shields for big business.

The new, skinny stimulus package boosts SNAP by 15 percent for only six months—far less than is needed to keep families fed during the continued crisis and while the economy recovers. Close to 80 million Americans don’t know if they’ll be able to afford dinner tonight, while Republicans threatened to hold up the relief bill unless it included a 100 percent tax deduction for business executives eating meals at restaurants.

Rather than using every tool at their disposal to help those in need, the current administration continues its attempts to limit federal assistance programs like SNAP. Just last week, the USDA appealed a federal district court ruling that previously struck down the administration’s rule to restrict SNAP for those who do not fit the limited and ideologically motivated narrative of who deserves help.

Sadly, this is not a surprising development nor a new tactic for the Trump administration.

Fighting a Familiar Battle

Ever since Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, the Trump administration has been attempting to undermine the bipartisan agreement to preserve the structure of SNAP, a program with a proven track record of fighting hunger and lifting families out of poverty. One of the central tenets of this compromise was keeping intact a state flexibility option called Categorical Eligibility (Cat-El).

Cat-El is a common sense option used by the vast majority of states to ensure that people facing food insecurity and state employees who administer assistance aren’t required to waste time duplicating applications—if you qualify for some form of federal assistance, you are deemed eligible for SNAP.

Put another way: If you sprain your ankle and your doctor writes you a prescription for the swelling caused by your injury, you don’t have to leave the office, make a new appointment, and come back another day to see if you qualify for the crutches you will need in order to heal.

Trump’s USDA mistakenly and cruelly claims that SNAP recipients abuse Cat-El, despite only citing one instance of fraud among literally millions of cases—that was in fact a bad faith effort by a millionaire who purposefully abused the system in order to make a point.

The truth is that Cat-El is more necessary today than ever before: Not only are SNAP application appointments challenging at the best of times for working parents, but during the pandemic, they are enough to place a formidable barrier between those in need and the vital assistance they deserve.

Devastating Impacts and Ripple Effects

By continuing to target Cat-El, Trump’s USDA places an extreme and unnecessary burden on populations who already face hurdles in the SNAP application process, including single mothers, seniors, people with disabilities, and those working in low-paid jobs. Whether by coincidence or design, these are also the communities facing the harshest consequences of the ongoing pandemic.

Restricting Cat-El would mean stripping 3.1 million people of critical SNAP benefits. It would also create devastating ripple effects: over 500,000 children would lose free school meals, because without access to SNAP, they would no longer qualify.

Cat-El is particularly helpful for working families in need of assistance, as it can prevent them from losing much-needed benefits when their incomes fluctuate slightly. Many families who receive SNAP through Cat-El are led by single mothers, who are disproportionately stuck in low-paying job with unpredictable hours and without benefits.

Words Matter

At MAZON, we know that we must be diligent in opposing partisan rhetoric and policy changes that hurt the American people—our families, our friends and our neighbors. Seemingly mundane bureaucratic changes to legislative language add up to devastating consequences.

Anti-hunger advocates are optimistic that the incoming Biden-Harris administration will protect access to SNAP, including Cat-El, for all those in need of assistance. As always, we at MAZON will work tirelessly to ensure that the solutions to food insecurity match the massive scope of the problem and that all Americans are treated with dignity and respect, without judgement, until no one in our country faces the pain of hunger.