CARSON CITY, Nev. - Groups that advocate for the working poor are speaking out against a new policy proposal from the Trump administration to make it much harder for people to get food stamps via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.
Right now, if you qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, states are allowed to automatically enroll you in SNAP. Under the new rule, TANF recipients would have to undergo another financial review before accessing SNAP.
Autumn Zemke, co-chair of the Northern Nevada Working Families Party, said this is just another hurdle - and more suffering for families already struggling.
"I think it's an attack specifically on working-class folks, in our state and across the United States," she said. "Taking away the few bucks that somebody's getting in food stamps every month if they're making $30,000 a year, people are going to go hungry, even more than they already are."
As of April, almost 420,000 people in Nevada received SNAP benefits, a drop of 4.4% from April 2018. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the change would push more than 3 million people off the program, and save the government $2.5 billion a year.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in announcing the policy, said it would fix a loophole that allows some people to take benefits they don't need. But Zemke countered that the rising cost of living means more and more working poor families are finding they can't afford basic necessities.
"Working a minimum wage in Nevada for $8.25 or $7.25, you can't even afford a place to live," she said. "You can't even rent a room and make that much, let alone feed yourself or your family."
The maximum a single person with no kids can make to qualify for SNAP is $1,247 a month, and the maximum benefit is $194 a month. Most people who get SNAP benefits have to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify.
Public comments about the proposal are being taken at regulations.gov for 60 days.
The SNAP Rule proposal is online at fns.usda.gov.
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By Sonali Kolhatkar for Yes! Media.
Broadcast version by Lily Böhlke for New York News Connection reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration
Maureen Gardner is proud of her 5-month-old son Garrett, who she says can already identify the color red and is growing so fast that he fits into clothes for a 1-year-old. Last July in New York City, a month before Garrett was born, Gardner began receiving $1,000 in cash monthly from The Bridge Project as part of a guaranteed income program intended to reduce poverty among women of color in the city.
"This was really a godsend for me," she says from her apartment in Harlem, speaking in hushed tones while Garrett naps.
Guaranteed income projects are distinct from presidential candidate Andrew Yang's idea of a universal basic income, which is premised on cash payments to everyone, not just the most vulnerable. A prominent example of a guaranteed income project is the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, which put $500 a month into the hands of 125 low-income residents of Stockton, California, for 24 months. Data gathered from the SEED project found that the cash significantly helped recipients stabilize their finances, acquire jobs, and improve their mental health, compared with a control group.
Can Guaranteed Incomes Benefit Low-Income Women and Children of Color?
Buoyed by the success of the Stockton experiment, guaranteed income projects, like the one Gardner is part of, are cropping up in major cities around the country. With the understanding that systemic economic racism results in disproportionate poverty within Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, many projects are specifically targeting low-income people of color, and primarily women and mothers.
Megha Agarwal, the executive director of The Bridge Project and of The Monarch Foundation, which funds the program, explains that it "was formed out of our desire to support the babies and mothers in New York and beyond who are suffering devastating effects from poverty." According to Agarwal, of the 100 mothers currently enrolled in the program, 74% identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 40% identify as Black; 20% are undocumented. "Guaranteed income has long been on the list of demands to receive racial and economic liberation," she says.
A similar program, run by the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, also focuses on women of color-specifically Black women-in Atlanta. Hope Wollensack, the executive director of the GRO Fund and co-director of the In Her Hands Guaranteed Income Initiative based in Atlanta's Old 4th Ward, says it is "the largest program focusing on Black women in the country."
"Centering Black women is really important," Wollensack explains, because "they are one of the groups experiencing the most acute and sharpest impacts of economic insecurity that exists."
"He's already very smart," says Gardner of her son Garrett, beaming with pride. "I'm thinking, like, 'Let's buy some flash cards, let's buy sensory toys.'" Now that she has a modest but steady flow of cash, Gardner has the freedom and means to focus on her son's development-something that may be an unaffordable luxury for children born into low-income households.
"I do think that his brain development is higher than those who might not have access to the funds to be able to buy things for their children," says Gardner.
Underscoring the importance of such monthly payments, neuroscientists recently concluded in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that cash aid to low-income mothers improves the cognitive functioning of their newborn babies. Agarwal, whose program gives exclusively to mothers, says The Bridge Project is premised on the fact that "the first 1,000 days of a child's life are really a crucial period of development physically, mentally, and cognitively."
The Dignity Afforded by Money With No Strings Attached
Aside from helping to foster the cognitive development of newborns, cash aid to mothers affords them basic necessities. When Gardner was about to have her baby, she realized that something as simple as doing laundry was going to be a problem. Although her apartment building has a common laundry room for residents, it presented a serious challenge for a mother living alone with a newborn during a pandemic. "My thoughts were like, 'I can't go to the laundry room with my baby,'" she explains. "I can wear a mask, but my baby doesn't even have shots. I have no help with him. It's just me."
It was a conundrum that neither she nor a caseworker at a welfare office were likely to have anticipated until the need arose. But with discretionary cash on hand, Gardner had the freedom to solve her problem when it cropped up without having to prove her need to an aid officer, fill out paperwork, or track receipts. She simply purchased a compact $500 washing machine for her apartment so she and her newborn could remain safe. "Buying the washing machine had me feeling a sense of relief," she says.
For Agarwal, it is crucial that such projects guarantee incomes "with dignity, respect, and trust. That's something that you don't see with a lot of our welfare system right now."
Wollensack agrees that giving cash without any requirements is critical, saying, "We really think it's important that folks have the choice and agency to make decisions about their lives and what they need."
Existing government welfare programs-increasingly dubbed "entitlement programs" by conservatives seeking to cast them in a negative light-whether at a local, state, or federal level, require onerous amounts of paperwork to prove recipients are deserving of aid. Those receiving food stamps can only spend them on specific items. Additionally, many programs now have work requirements and may require drug testing. Guaranteed income projects, in contrast, impose no requirements on how the money can be spent and no judgments on what recipients choose to spend on.
"In the United States, we've been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there's something wrong with their character," says Agarwal. "That's just not true."
According to Sarah Moran, the U.S. country director at GiveDirectly, which funds the In Her Hands program in Atlanta, "We don't trust people who are living in poverty in the United States. That is the way our social safety net is built, and we're trying to flip the script on that."
Gardner concurs, referring to her own experience: "It's a great feeling to feel freedom in the way that I spend it."
Can the Government Guarantee Incomes?
"While we're excited about the scope and scale of this project, we know it's not enough," says Wollensack of the Atlanta-based In Her Hands project. The guaranteed income projects in Atlanta, New York, and Stockton are all privately funded experiments aimed at generating real-world data for social scientists to analyze and at informing broader government-funded programs in the future.
In the last years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a proponent of the idea that the government ought to ensure all people had access to a basic income. In his 1967 speech Where Do We Go From Here, he said, "We must develop progress, or rather, a program ... that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income." Dr. King added, "The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain."
Now, the city of Los Angeles has launched the nation's largest government-funded guaranteed income pilot project, giving $1,000 a month to 3,000 families for a year. The Basic Income Guaranteed: Los Angeles Economic Assistance Pilot, whose acronym is fittingly BIG:LEAP, accepted applicants in 2021 whose household income fell below the poverty line and is slated to begin payments soon. The cash will not replace existing government assistance but will instead supplement it.
Chicago is planning a similarly sized project with a larger pool of people receiving smaller monthly payments. And momentum is building for publicly funded programs in cities across the country as leaders organize under the network Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.
The closest the federal government recently came to a guaranteed income project was the monthly child tax credit program that sent payments to low-income parents as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. But amid claims that such payments could disincentivize employment, Congress chose to let that program expire in 2022.
Do Cash Transfers Work?
Wollensack dismisses the naysayers, saying, "If $850 a month is compelling enough against labor market wages that people are no longer incentivized to work, I think that's more of an indictment on [how] current wages [compare] to the cost of living than it is about our program."
Moran says, "Empirically, there is just no evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work." According to her organization's website, GiveDirectly "is currently running the largest universal basic income experiment in history," and has "conducted more than 10 randomized control trials."
In addition to labor concerns, critics of government aid say it causes inflation. "If large swaths of Americans have to live in poverty so that inflation stays below 2%, then something fundamentally about our economy isn't working," contends Wollensack.
Over the brief six-month duration of the child tax credit program, the modest monthly payments of a few hundred dollars cut child poverty by almost 30%. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 90% of low-income families receiving the payments used the money "for the most basic household expenses-food, clothing, shelter, and utilities-or education."
"Our national social safety net is predicated on the idea that poverty is a personal choice and not structural or a policy choice," says Moran.
In reality, Agarwal says the choice to maintain poverty is an external one-made by our government. Through the child tax credit, "We were able to alleviate poverty at massive scales." In letting the program expire, she adds, "We've said it's OK to let those people fall back into poverty."
For women like Gardner, a modest amount of available cash is making a world of difference. "I don't know what I would be doing if I didn't have it," she says.
Sonali Kolhatkar wrote this article for YES! Magazine.
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Nebraska and other states are hoarding more than $5 billion intended for struggling families, according to
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In 2019, for every 100 Nebraska families living in poverty, only 17 were getting cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, explained that states gradually have been closing the door to federal funds, even during the pandemic.
"States have changed the eligibility requirements for the program," she said, "and it's become harder and harder for parents to access the program - despite there being a high level of financial need in the state."
According to federal data, Nebraska - along with Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas - denied nearly 90% of applications from families seeking emergency relief. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the agency charged with distributing TANF funds, has not yet responded to a request for comments.
Welfare reforms passed under the Clinton administration gave broad leeway to states for how TANF funds should be distributed, and a provision meant to prevent hoarding was left out of the final legislation. Some officials have warned that welfare discourages work and creates dependency, but Burnside noted that most families living in poverty already are working, and government assistance has been readily available to banks and industry.
"Just because families are poor, that doesn't mean that the government shouldn't be there to support them when they're having a financial emergency," she said, "and it's not a child's fault if their parents cannot secure a job."
Burnside said she believes keeping money intended for families with children is short-sighted, because investing in children's well-being pays off down the road. When kids have stable housing and nutrition, they do better in school, earn better wages as adults and become financially independent.
"When you're hoarding the money and not providing it to families as they're facing poverty, that doesn't do anything to help the child," she said. "States shouldn't be sitting on money that they have when they could be providing emergency financial support to families that are just barely making it month to month."
BISMARCK, N.D. – This weekend marks the 52nd anniversary of the Medicaid program, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965.
Medicaid provides insurance for children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, seniors and low-income adults, and 114,000 North Dakotans currently are enrolled in the program.
Amy Thom is a social worker whose daughter Emory suffers from epilepsy due to a rare disorder called Sturge-Weber Syndrome. Emory has undergone numerous therapies and receives therapy in school thanks to Medicaid. Thom says she and her husband also get in-home services for her daughter.
"We aren't able to just leave her with a typical babysitter and maybe go out to supper one night, or even to just run out and do a couple errands,” she points out. “And so, Medicaid has helped that piece. We have the in-home supports that we can hire respite to come in an hour or two here or there."
Thom notes that both she and her husband are insured and use Medicaid as supplemental coverage for Emory. She says her family would pay about $11,000 out-of-pocket each year without it.
Friday at noon, speakers will be on the Burleigh County Courthouse lawn in Bismarck, celebrating the anniversary of Medicaid's signing.
The Trump administration and the U.S. House have proposed massive cuts to the program to bring down the federal deficit. Along with changes to the Affordable Care Act in the American Health Care Act, the House budget would slash $1.5 trillion from Medicaid over the next decade.
Mike Chaussee, associate state director for advocacy at AARP North Dakota, says an unlikely alliance has formed to oppose cuts.
"It's not always that the health care industry and the consumer advocates are fighting for something together,” he states. “And in this fight, we all agree on how important it is to save Medicaid."
Chaussee says the program has been especially helpful for seniors who aren't able to fully cover nursing or in-home costs through Medicare. He calls the program a "lifeline" for many seniors.
Thom says she wants to advocate for the people who can't advocate for themselves.
"I think it's incredibly important because it's people's lives, and it affects the quality that they're able to have, and there's amazing services out there," she stresses.
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