Over the past year, President Trump and conservative lawmakers have proposed an avalanche of measures to cut SNAP, the nation’s most important safety net program. The changes in rules, none enacted by Congress, are in various stages of formulation, review or court challenges. Among the changes proposed to the food stamp program enacted in 1964 to reduce hunger and food insecurity are:

  • The Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed changing how heating and other utility bills are calculated into a family’s expenses in the formula used to determine SNAP benefits. The proposed overhaul would hurt poor residents of many cold-weather states by reducing the amount they can deduct for utility costs. About 29 states would see a decline in SNAP funding. The new rule would cut spending on food stamps by $4.5 billion from over five years.
  • In July, USDA proposed a new rule that would lead more than three million people to lose their food stamps by changing the program’s eligibility requirements on savings and other allowable assets
  • A year ago, the Agriculture Department sought to place more stringent work requirements on the program, limiting the ability of states to issue waivers to people who say they cannot make ends meet under SNAP requirements. This month, those new rules were implemented, tightening work requirements for adult SNAP applicants without children, leading to an estimated reduction of 700,000 participants.

In addition, over the last two years, the President has proposed a variety of changes that would limit the access of immigrants to public food benefits such as SNAP. In the past, only receipt of public assistance was considered for eligibility for citizenship and green cards. Under the proposed changes, SNAP and Medicaid benefits would also be considered. Currently, court orders have prevented the government from implementing the new public charge rules.

These multiple changes, some proposed, some announced as final, and some rejected by the courts, have served several purposes. They have discouraged many households from applying for benefits, concerned either that they were no longer eligible or that enrollment could lead to sanctions. They have contributed to a sense of policy overload, a perception that it was no longer possible to understand all the changes or react effectively. These proposals have also absorbed the energy and time of food security and social justice activists, leading to hundreds of thousands of comments to the USDA, numerous demonstrations, and widespread media commentary. But the proposals have also forced activists to remain in a defensive mode, ready to mobilize to combat every new proposed cut, foregoing the “luxury” of developing a proactive strategy to actually reduce food insecurity, hunger and poverty.

As the 2020 national election season heats up, what would a longer-term strategy to achieve meaningful reductions in hunger and food insecurity in the United States look like? That’s the topic of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Forum SNAP: 50 Years after the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to be held on December 17, 2019. To prepare for that forum, we ask these questions:

  1. What’s the relationship between cuts in SNAP and other public benefits and the Trump tax cuts? How can advocates best frame the discussion?
  2. What can city and state governments do to protect vulnerable populations against cuts in SNAP and other benefits? How can New York City and State provide national models for state and local responses?
  3. A 2018 public opinion poll found that the majority of registered voters oppose recent efforts to scale back SNAP and believe the government should be doing more to meet the needs of people facing food insecurity and other challenges. How can we translate this popular support into more active public support for SNAP? How can the White House efforts to modify SNAP rules without Congressional approval be linked to other abuses of democracy and majority rule?
  4. The nation is immersed in a debate on what constitutes moral and legal behavior for our elected officials. Can our policies on food security, the way we talk publicly about hungry people, and what are a society’s obligations to prevent food insecurity be part of that discussion?
  5. American values have always included demands for both individual and social responsibility for the well-being of families, communities and society. How can these sometime competing values be aligned in the current era? What democratic and governance procedures can help to conduct that national discussion in a positive way?

As you can see, we do not have answers but we do hope that you will join the discussion of these and other questions so that we can together help to write the next chapter of becoming a better, healthier, more food secure and just city and nation.

By Nicholas Freudenberg, Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Janet Poppendieck, Senior Faculty Fellow, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College, CUNY

Banner image credit: https://psmag.com/economics/erasing-welfare-myths