For much of the Covid-19 pandemic, families enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) were able to receive additional assistance each month. Known as SNAP emergency allotments, this extra support had a profound impact in ensuring that families with children could get enough to eat throughout the crisis, keeping an estimated 4.2 million people above the poverty line and reducing child poverty by 14% in the last quarter of 2021.
But that extra support disappeared this month. Despite its impressive impact, Congress failed to renew the SNAP emergency allotment, decreasing support for low-income families by $95 or more each month. While the amount may seem modest, it can be the difference between children eating dinner or going hungry multiple nights each week. And as a result, millions of people are fast approaching a hunger cliff.
At the heart of Congressional inaction was disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on conditions for SNAP, with GOP legislators demanding mandatory work requirements that would prevent families from receiving SNAP benefits without maintaining paid employment. “We know that work is the only path out of poverty,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, in defense of the new requirements.
While work may be a path out of poverty, work requirements are not. Studies have repeatedly found that attaching work requirements to benefits is ineffective, as it does not lead to an increase in employment, but rather, fewer people receiving essential benefits. These requirements may even act as a work deterrent, as hunger can impair an individual’s ability to secure and maintain employment.
The story gets even worse when you consider the long-term impact of work requirements on children. With many families shut out of receiving benefits by work requirements, far more children will grow up hungry. Research indicates that malnourished children are more likely to experience cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems, which can lead to lower academic achievement and reduced employment prospects. In short, work requirements will lead to fewer children getting a job when they grow up.
It may seem bizarre that the GOP would push such a counter-productive approach to encouraging work. Some Republican legislators could be confused about the ineffectiveness of work requirements. However, others likely recognize that for many of their corporate supporters, poverty is not a problem to be solved, but rather a condition to be maintained.
In his new book “Poverty, By America,” author and sociologist Matthew Desmond explores the ways in which certain sectors of our economy are dependent on impoverished populations. For example, the fast food industry relies heavily on low-wage workers, payday loan companies prey on those who struggle to make ends meet and the private prison corporations rely on people committing crimes of desperation to occupy their cells.
Eradicating poverty could severely disrupt these industries, giving their executives a strong incentive to lobby elected officials to oppose any policy that would lift up too many poor families — a message that seems to have been heard loud and clear by many GOP officials.
The current partisan gridlock in Washington leaves little hope for the restoration of SNAP benefits to their previous levels. However, it is crucial to recognize the motivations driving this impasse.
The GOP’s support for policies that exacerbate poverty, such as work requirements for SNAP recipients, indicates a troubling disregard for the well-being of millions of Americans. As we confront the looming hunger cliff, it’s time to acknowledge the GOP for what it has become: the pro-poverty party.