In Santa Barbara County, 38,000-39,000 people utilize food stamps through CalFresh, California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). On average, their gross monthly employment income is just $142. When combined with CalFresh and other welfare benefits, their monthly income increases to $607. Now, the Trump administration is imposing new conditions for accessing food benefits that would lead to around 1,700 county residents losing those benefits, which amount to around $148 a month on average, when the rule goes into effect in April 2020.
Current rules state that work-eligible, able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs, must be working at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP benefits. If they are not meeting those requirements, recipients are eligible for just three months’ worth of benefits over the course of three years. While states previously had the ability to waive work requirements based on exceptional economic circumstances such as high unemployment, the Trump administration is moving to do away with this ability.
The rule change would result in around 700,000 people losing access to food stamps nationwide, and two more proposed rule changes that have yet to be confirmed could raise this number to 3.7 million, including half a million families with children. The changes to work requirements apply only to ABAWDs, who do not have dependents, so no children would be affected unless the two other rules go into effect.
The new rule takes away the state’s ability to waive work requirements, unless the counties in question have unemployment rates over 6 percent, a figure that applies to five counties in California out of 58 (Imperial County has the highest, an eye-popping 21percent unemployment). The Trump administration claims that the move will give people the push they need to get off welfare and become economically self-sufficient, but there’s a problem: There simply aren’t enough good-paying jobs.
“The basic premise here is that taking people’s food benefits away will act as a ‘motivator’ to go find a job, but that is simply not something that the science supports,” said Maria Gardner, deputy director of the Department of Social Services for Santa Barbara County. “The truth is that it’s very difficult for people to find work, and a lot of the jobs out there, especially in sectors like retail and food service, don’t offer the stability or wages needed to lift yourself out of poverty.” This trend is not confined to Santa Barbara. A recent study released by the Brookings Institution showed that around 44 percent of all Americans now work in low-wage jobs.
Deep poverty in the United States, much less idyllic places like Santa Barbara County, can be hard to comprehend. But over 1.5 million American households, including three million children, live on a stunningly low income of just $2 a day. In 2017, around 13 percent of households with children in the county were below the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), and around 33 percent were above the poverty line but still failed to reach economic self-sufficiency. In fact, even a household with three people working full-time jobs at minimum wage would not be enough to qualify as economically self-sufficient.
Experts like Caitlin Rathe, a PhD student at UCSB who writes on the American welfare system, say that programs that train and re-skill workers, as well as a higher minimum wage, could be a helpful part of the solution. But such programs are not in abundance.
“If we had a living wage that people could survive on, or programs that helped train people and connect them with jobs in sectors where there are opportunities, that would be really helpful,” said Rathe. “But the fact is that these services just aren’t very robust, and they aren’t widely available.”