By Anne Price, President

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Last week, the Trump administration issued a punitive new rule in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) that is projected to push 700,000 of the most destitute Americans off the program. The new rule not only undermines the purpose of the SNAP program, which is to expand during economic downturns and tackle food insecurity, but also intentionally harms marginally employed Americans.

Since 1996, non-disabled adults without dependents (ages 18 through 49), commonly referred to as “able-bodied” adults, are limited to 3 months of benefits out of every 36 months if they are not working 20 hours a week or showing participation in a work training program. Governors of states with high unemployment rates, however, can ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the entity that runs SNAP) to waive this time limit, allowing people to receive benefits beyond the statutory time limits set for the program. Thirty-six states currently have waivers from the three-month cutoff, but beginning in April 2020 the new rule imposes stricter criteria that states must meet in order to receive a waiver.

The focus on the “able-bodied” is as old as the English poor law dating back to 1601 — this set of laws laid the groundwork for social policy in the United States — distinguishing between people who we thought should be working, and those who couldn’t work for a reason. It set the foundation for who we see as deserving and undeserving today. And how we divide people into the deserving and undeserving is deeply racialized.

For decades lawmakers have peddled tropes of government dependency and painted the “able-bodied” as lazy and cheats as a cover to attack SNAP. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement that “we’re taking action to reform our SNAP program in order to restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program,” was taken from a very old playbook. He was dog-whistling a tired, age-old trope of deservedness and race.

A similar, but much more racially explicit sentiment was echoed back in 2012, when Republican Rick Santorum was running for President and calling for SNAP reforms. “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum said. “I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” Santorum was clearly articulating that he simply does not believe the government should be helping Black people, ignoring historic and current government-sponsored policies that contribute to the economic insecurity of Black people.

There have been long-standing concerns and resentment among conservatives about the moral damage of non-working people and the problem of “free-loading by the able-bodied,” which all stem from the racist idea that Black people are immoral and predisposed to cheat the system. However, liberals also share these concerns, making it even easier to utilize this anti-Black rhetoric that favors shredding SNAP and spurring people toward moral growth through greater economic insecurity.

The narrative of “able-bodied freeloader” that has informed and shaped the new SNAP rule will have devastating consequences. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, people who will be most harmed by the new SNAP rule will be those who struggle the most in the labor market, including adults without a college education, whose unemployment rate is much higher than the overall unemployment rate, and those living in rural areas where jobs are often harder to find. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are likely to lose benefits disproportionately under the rule, given their much higher rates of joblessness and discrimination in the labor market.

Depriving adults without children or other dependents of the last small shreds of the safety net will have other ripple effects on families who are struggling to get by. For these adults, SNAP is the only federal benefit they are eligible for, since most benefits are determined based on having dependents. They rely on a monthly average benefit of $163, or $5.43 a day.

Maggie Dickinson, author of Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net, notes that frequently adults who are categorized as not having “dependents” do have children or other family members, often living in other households, that they support using their SNAP benefits. She finds that for people who are out of work and staying with friends or relatives, access to SNAP means they can contribute groceries to the household. For many, this is what allows them to stay in the good graces of their housemates and not end up in the streets.

If we are going to turn back the tide of disinvesting in our social safety net, we must first be willing to acknowledge that the pretexts for cuts like these are rooted in anti-Blackness. Then we must invest in shifting the narratives that undergird these damaging policies that are built on anti-Blackness and deem low-income white people and people of color as undeserving. Our nation’s future, and the lives of many individuals and families, depend on it.

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