One Safety Net Time Limit Down, More Sweeping Limits in View

June 12, 2017

Here in the District of Columbia, the Council has just made history by eliminating the time limit it had imposed on all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participants. No state has done this, DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Executive Director notes in an emailed budget wrap-up.

And proudly because DCFPI played a major role in developing and then advocating for a policy that will ensure very poor families some cash assistance, activities that may get them jobs so they no longer need it and child care so they can meet those activity requirement

The Council’s unanimous vote for a policy more protective than what the Mayor originally proposed is maybe the biggest high point of this budget season.

Meanwhile, we see proposed nationwide safety net program limits of a whole other sort — some retreads, but others new inventions, though champions of so-called entitlement reform have been laying the groundwork for a long time.

SNAP Benefits Limits

The law that created TANF also set a time limit on eligibility for SNAP, but only for able-bodied adults without dependents They usually can receive benefits for only three months in any given three years unless they’re working or participating in a work preparation program at least half time.

Generally speaking, however, SNAP benefits have no time limit. People with incomes low enough to qualify can receive them until their incomes break the threshold.

The Trump administration, as you may have read, would shift 25% of SNAP costs to states — $116 billion during the first 10 years. States could reduce the value of the benefits they provide, notwithstanding ample evidence that current benefits don’t cover the costs of a healthful diet.

But they would also have to adopt new restrictions. These collectively seem to save the federal government an additional $77 billion or so. They would, among other things, revise the way the Agriculture Department sets benefit levels.

As things stand now, they’re based on household size. The more members, the larger the benefits, though they’re smaller on a per person basis due to assumed economies of scale.

So, for example, a two-member household can receive as much as $357 a month, while the maximum for a four-person household is $63 less than double that.

On the flip side, a household with only one or two members will receive no less than $16 a month. Most beneficiaries in this group are elderly and/or disabled.

The Trump administration would deny them any minimum benefit. More than 1.9 million people, most of them living alone would have to spend more on food — and perhaps more importantly, lose the incentive to remain enrolled and thus readily eligible for more assistance if needed.

Returning to the household benefits scale, we find an unadjusted per person increase for each member beyond the eighth. The administration would cap benefits at the six-member rate. Larger households would have to feed about 170,000 people who’d now be factored into their benefit.

This flies in the face of several trends. One is a significant increase in multigenerational households, i.e., those with at least two adult generations. The younger of them or even both may have children in the home too.

We also have unrelated families living together — in some cases, one allowing another to double up rather than rely on their community’s homeless services, in others, more permanent arrangements based on shared rent and other household costs.

Why any policymaker should seek to discourage them when they’re obviously beneficial and cost-saving in various ways, e.g., as an alternative to nursing home care, as a source of child care so that a parent can afford to work.

The answer, one infers, is to cut SNAP costs by about $180 million a year — food insecurity and out-and-out hunger increases notwithstanding.

Disability Benefits Limits

The Trump administration also seeks to cut both Social Security programs for people with disabilities.

For Social Security Disability Insurance, its budget would have Congress establish an expert panel to identify ways to keep workers with disabilities out of the program initially and/or get them out later.

It would also test its own strategies. This, one could guess, is because the expert panel might not recommend changes as radical as those the budget counts on to save about $58.7 million during the first 10 years.

It’s nevertheless the case, as I’ve said before, that experts have proposed various return-to-work proposals that could work for SSDI beneficiaries, as well.

What’s altogether other is the benefits limit the administration proposes for Supplemental Security Income — modest monthly benefit for elderly, blind and otherwise disabled people with little, if any other cash income.

Families can receive a benefit for each of their children severely disabled enough to qualify. As with adults, the amount reflects a complex income calculation, but benefits for each child are the same.

The Trump administration would retain the full benefit for one eligible family member, but ratchet benefits down for the rest. This effectively reduces the income that supports all family members — and $9 million in federal safety net spending.

It’s not the first effort to cut SSI funding. The House Republican Study Group tried to get the program block granted in 2012. The House Budget Committee decided to instead adopt the same cost-cutting approach we find in Trump’s budget.

Both have justified it by alleged economies of scale, e.g. the fact that housing for three people doesn’t cost a third more than housing for two.

But we’ve reliable research  showing that even the maximum benefit didn’t cover the extra costs of raising a severely disabled child. Sixty-two percent of families with just one with SSI benefits suffered at least one material hardship.

To borrow from Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, the folks who’ve shaped Trumponomics and translated it into specifics seem to think “that it doesn’t suck enough to be poor.”


Washington Post Launches Sneak Attack on Food Stamp Recipients

December 19, 2013

Well, leave it to the Washington Post to find a family receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits that reinforces just about every aspect of the “welfare” stereotype.

Not quite every aspect because the mother doesn’t use illegal drugs, though her parents did. But she does apparently spend a fair amount of money on cigarettes.

Now, there are some positive aspects to the story. We learn, for example, that the mother has figured out some ingenious ways to cut the family’s electricity bills, e.g., by taking the light bulb out of the refrigerator.

She’s organized. Has a schedule of free food distributions attached to the refrigerator door. She has a sense of personal dignity, which she communicates to her children. They all have to look their best when they head out to the food pantries.

And she’s a generous soul. She feeds not only herself and her own children, but two nieces, whose mother tends to disappear, and some others who drop in.

On her way back from a food pantry, she gives one of the half dozen breakfast pastries she’s just gotten to a homeless woman who pleads for help.

We’re also given to understand that she’s unable to work because of ailments that either materialized or were exacerbated when she worked two jobs and lived in a freezing-cold house because she couldn’t afford to pay the gas bills, jobs notwithstanding.

But the story still betrays the Post‘s hostility to present-day “entitlements” and its embrace of the standard conservative view that safety net programs foster dependency.

Lack of what conservatives call “personal responsibility” too. How else to explain why the Post chose to focus story solely on a woman who has six children, fathered by five different men, none of whom stuck around very long?

Or on her eldest daughter, who’s unemployed and not much inclined to continue looking for work?

Okay. It’s a true story — and meticulously reported, so far as we can tell. But how representative is it? Not very.

For example, SNAP households with children have an average of only 3.4 members. Well over half have at least one member working in a typical month, except in cases where there’s no one who’s working-age and not disabled.

The number of SNAP households with earnings has, in fact, risen markedly over the last 10 or so years — at least in part because so many jobs don’t pay enough for families to have a net income over the poverty line.

Nevertheless, only slightly over a quarter of participants stay in the program for two consecutive years or more, according to the latest data analysis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By contrast, the mother the Post profiles has participated for all but nine months of her life.

What got me going, however, is the Post‘s eagerness to support both the recent SNAP cuts and those that House and Senate negotiators are working on now.

The Post rightly notes that SNAP spending has risen markedly — as one would expect a responsive safety net program to do during a recession as bad as the last.

But it fails to acknowledge that spending, as a share of our economy, has fallen — and that it’s expected to continue falling for at least five years, when it will reach about the same share as in 1995.

Even in Fiscal Year 2013, before the recent cuts, the total spent on SNAP benefits was only 2% of the federal budget.

Moreover, the Post simply misstates the reason for the recent SNAP cuts. They were, it says, “the beginning of an attempt by Congress to dramatically shrink” the program.

In point of fact, Congress raided the out-years of the SNAP benefits boost in the Recovery Act to partly offset the costs of some additional fiscal aid to the states and again as an offset for improvements in child nutrition programs.

No one, to my knowledge, was talking then about the cuts as a step toward “a cultural transformation,” which, as the Post explains, would “wean the next generation from a cycle of long-term dependency.”

We’re hearing this sort of language now, of course — from right-wingers in Congress and think tanks that supply their talking points.

Perhaps the Post‘s as well. Or maybe it’s coincidence that we find the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation beating the drums about explosive SNAP spending and pernicious dependency.

All I’m sure of is that the Post could easily have found a couple who couldn’t feed their toddler without SNAP because the breadwinner is jobless and unable to find work.

It might have focused on one of the 3,900 or so veterans in the District whose SNAP benefits were recently cut. Not an either/or choice here, obviously.

Or it could instead have profiled a single mom who’s fully self-sufficient and, by any common standard, successful because “welfare” programs like SNAP enabled her to go to college. I know of two who are serving in Congress now.

Or it could simply have told the story of how one poor family is struggling to make the best of a bad situation made worse by the loss of about 15% of its already-low SNAP benefits.

In any case, it could have reserved its editorializing for the editorial page, where such things belong.