My new publication, SNAP, Campus Food Insecurity, and the Politics of Deservingness, digs into the history of SNAP restrictions and the consequences of these policies for CUNY students today. SNAP student restrictions for full time college students were put in place in the early 1980’s. These rules bar full time college students from receiving SNAP unless they are working 20 hours a week or they meet one of a number of other exemptions. The result of this complicated policy configuration is that many low-income college students are barred from food assistance for no reason other than the fact that they are pursuing a college education. Our study found that 32% of CUNY students with incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP did not meet an exemption and would likely be turned away if they applied for benefits. In addition to outright exclusions, many more students do not apply because the complicated rules dampen enrollment even among eligible students.
But where did these restrictions come from in the first place? In response to the gains of the Civil Rights movements, politicians and policy makers in the late 1960’s began to deploy colorblind rhetoric around taxes and personal responsibility to undercut support for spending on social programs (Cooper 2017; Gilmore 2007; Hinton 2016). Restricting access to both public higher education and the social safety net were intertwined priorities for conservatives intent on rolling back Civil Rights era gains. Ronald Reagan pioneered the kind of racist dog-whistle politics that were central to these political efforts (Haney-Lopez 2014). He used food stamps to explicitly link the expansion of both free college and what he saw as overly generous welfare support by pushing to cut food stamps for college students. He told a story about the need to cut benefits premised on a “young lady…who on the basis of being a student is getting food stamps, and she’s studying to be a witch” (Jaffe 2021, p. 40). Much like the notorious welfare queen, Reagan presented a caricature of an undeserving, affluent college student living off the public’s dime to justify changes in food stamp policy that harmed (and continues to harm) many students with real needs.
The myth of the undeserving, affluent college student was effectively deployed to cut food stamps for college students across the economic spectrum. Though barring affluent, undeserving students from SNAP was the justification for adding numerous restrictions to the program, adding increased restrictions and complications to the program had the predictable effect of pushing people off of the food stamp rolls indiscriminately and making young people more reliant on their families to support them while they are in school. Given the racial dynamics of family wealth and income in the U.S., the push to increase dependence on family support for college disproportionately hurt Black and brown students (Hamilton et al. 2015). The weight of this policy history is borne by students today, who are turned down when they apply for SNAP because they do not meet any of the student exemptions and those who never bother to apply because they do not believe they are eligible.
CUNY students are particularly vulnerable to these policies as they struggle to make ends meet while they are in school. At CUNY, 80% of undergraduates are students of color, 61% are first generation college students, and 42% come from households with incomes under $20,000 (CUNY 2018). I present data from interviews with 22 CUNY students on their experiences with SNAP. Students describe being turned down for assistance, their confusion about eligibility requirements, and the stigma produced by SNAP work requirements for students. Interviews with campus benefits enrollment staff document the challenges SNAP student restrictions present for college employees who are working to address food insecurity on CUNY campuses.
The federal COVID relief bill passed in December 2020 expanded SNAP eligibility for college students for the duration of the pandemic. The bill added new exemptions for students whose estimated family contribution is $0 on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and for students who are eligible for work study, even if they do not currently have a work study position. These are positive improvements, however, these new state and federal approaches to expanding eligibility still conform to the logic of the original SNAP restrictions put in place in the 1980’s – that students are generally undeserving unless they can prove otherwise. The new policies expand the number of students who can prove themselves deserving, but students will still have to document that they meet an exemption and will be subject to a higher administrative burden than other SNAP applicants. For CUNY students, complicated restrictions and administrative hurdles for SNAP keep eligible students from accessing the support they need through both direct and indirect exclusion. Subjecting students to greater scrutiny than other SNAP applicants is a remnant of the Reagan era belief that affluent, undeserving students might take advantage of the program. This history and the ongoing impact on today’s college students asks us to move beyond the politics of deservingness and to question the received common sense about why college students were pushed off of SNAP in the first place.
By Maggie Dickinson
Cooper, M. (2017). Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books.
Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkely, CA: University of California Press.
Hamilton, D., Darity, W., Price, A., Sridharan, V., & Tippett, R. (2015). Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard isn’t Enough for Black Americans. Retrieved from
Haney-Lopez, I. (2014). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hinton, E. (2016). From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Cabridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jaffe, S. (2021). Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. New York: Bold Type Books.
Maggie Dickinson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at CUNY’s Guttman Community College and faculty fellow of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. She is the author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net.