Editorial: Benefit cuts

In Maine, 13.6 percent of households face food insecurity, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough nutritious food. Just under 6 percent of households are categorized as having very low food security.

Some of those struggling Mainers stand to lose food assistance provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the U.S. Department of Agriculture tightens work requirements for the program. Current program rules dictate that able-bodied Americans ages 18 to 49 who don’t have dependents can receive SNAP benefits for up to three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in school or a training program. But states have been able to obtain waivers of that time limit based on local unemployment rates. The new rule, which is set to take effect in April, will increase the unemployment rate needed in order to get a waiver.

Some 688,000 Americans are expected to lose their SNAP benefits under the rule, which is expected to save the government $5.5 billion over five years. Officials cited low unemployment and a robust economy as part of their reasoning.

In April 2018, President Trump outlined his administration’s policy in an executive order titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility.” It states, “The federal government’s role is to clear paths to self-sufficiency, reserving public assistance programs for those who are truly in need. The federal government should do everything within its authority to empower individuals by providing opportunities for work, including by investing in federal programs that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.”

Social welfare programs are intended as a safety net, and self-sufficiency is a desirable goal. But a blanket ruling that SNAP recipients must work to eat ignores the diverse economic landscape across the United States and the many possible barriers to employment, including lack of transportation, lack of suitable jobs or insufficient education or skills. Moreover, many food-insecure Mainers have jobs, but are one paycheck or unexpected cost away from hunger. Employment is not a magic bullet.

The rule change is likely to increase pressure on area food pantries, which already have their hands full. As leaders of the Bar Harbor Food Pantry pointed out in a Community Forum in the Islander in 2017, many of the people who use the food pantry are in fact employed, but living paycheck to paycheck and spending most of their income on housing and heat.

The federal government should be doing more to fight food insecurity, not less. Rather than restricting states’ ability to determine and address local need, the administration should focus on connecting people with resources to help them achieve the purported goal — independence.

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