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Trump's new food stamp rule is just another way to play the lower middle class off the truly poor

A proposal like this is a dog whistle to suburbanite voters that their precious tax dollars won’t be going to people who “don’t deserve” the money.
Image: Food Bank For NYC Provides Food Pantry And Soup Kitchen To Harlem Families
A child accompanies his grandmother choosing free groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City on Dec. 11, 2013. The food bank distributes dry, canned and fresh food to needy residents who have had their food stamps cut due to the federal SNAP program expiration.John Moore / Getty Images file

The politics of scarcity, so thoroughly employed in our country, has left those who have little looking angrily upon those who have nothing, while clutching their pocketbooks for dear life. The poor who manage to climb the mountain to the other side of the poverty line should not be met with government officials saying: “Congratulations! Now we’re gonna kick you back down the mountain a few hundred feet.”

And yet that is exactly what the Trump administration apparently intends to do to food stamp recipients. Through unilateral decision making — the kind you are frankly more likely to find in an authoritarian regime — the White House has decided to make an end run around Congress and chip away at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP, also known as food stamps) in a way that both undermines the stabilities of families in urban and rural America and has the potential to decimate local economies.

At the heart of the proposal is what hurdles states are required to force poor people to jump to qualify for food stamps. The majority of states currently allow residents to automatically qualify for food stamps without a financial review for up to two years if they also qualify for welfare, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Trump administration has proposed a new rule that says that people will have their incomes and assets assessed for food stamp eligibility to ensure that those benefits aren’t given to anyone whose total income extends beyond the limit. (Congress refused to pass eligibility limits on the food stamp program last year.)

On a conference call Monday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stated, “Some states are taking advantage of loopholes that allow people to receive the SNAP benefits who would otherwise not qualify and for which they are not entitled.”

Well, that’s one way to spin it.

While Perdue's acting deputy undersecretary claimed, with zero evidence, that "millionaires" are claiming food stamps, current policies like the one that allows for two years of eligibility before a food-stamp specific review don't allow “millionaires” to receive food stamps, as they are limited to people who are already eligible for federal welfare benefits. Instead, such policies are about supporting the families who receive a $0.35 per hour raise in that time, which might be the deciding factor for whether they earn too much to qualify for continued food stamps even if it's not enough money to actually feed their families.

In other words, when a family might finally eke out just enough to make it to the other side of the poverty line, having their food stamps benefits instantly revoked — per the proposed policy — could be the very thing that sends them back to the economic instability that food stamps were designed to combat. Trump's new policy could literally become a penalty for working hard and earning the privilege of a raise.

Thus, policies like the one the Trump administration are attacking are less about extending benefits to people who don’t "deserve" them, and more about helping to support the people who are slowly climbing out of poverty.

Welfare policies are supposed to be about poverty reduction — ensuring that people have access to food and shelter, and building local economies that have the capacity to employ and serve the people in the community. Businesses cannot thrive in communities where there is no money; grocery stores cannot survive in places where the people who need to shop there the most cannot afford to do so.

It is also worth noting that the $2.5 billion per year that the Trump administration says this change will save the government — the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said last year that the savings would be closer to $800 million — would not just come from the tables of the working poor, but from the pockets of local business. After all, all the food bought by food stamp recipients has to come from somewhere, and it usually comes from local grocery stores, chains, big box stores and, occasionally, farmers markets. When less money comes into those stores, they have less capital to keep people employed.

A proposal like this, though, isn't really about saving money or helping the economy; it is a dog whistle to the suburbanite voters of America, an unsubtle message to them that their precious tax dollars won’t be going to people who “don’t deserve” the money anywhere near as much as they do.

So, if you’re the kind of person who believes the poor are still poor in Trump’s low-unemployment economy merely because they don’t work as hard as you, this will bring you joy. You’ll likely see the scarcity this creates as a motivating force to encourage “these people” to work harder. Except, scarcity politics do not create good policy.

The alleged $2.5 billion proposed annual savings from this particular modification — and, again, there's reason to believe that the Agriculture Department is vastly overestimating the savings — is nothing more than a drop in the bucket of the federal budget. If the goal was to rush to try to find ways to make up for the $1.5 trillion tax giveaway Trump gave to the billionaire class, he’d have to find an additional $1,492,000,000,000 stashed somewhere … and quickly. 2020 isn’t that far away.

In a country in which we have $1.5 trillion to give to people who have more money than we could ever imagine, we shouldn’t be thirsting to take from people who have the least of the least.

But not enough conversation is had about why the poor stoke so much ire in American society. Anything from the death of a breadwinner to an extreme medical emergency can send an otherwise comfortable family careering into poverty, ultimately in need of the same programs and services they looked upon scornfully in their best days.

For some reason, not enough people look upon the people who hoard mountains of cash and wonder why they seem so comfortable when the rest of us quarrel over the scraps. Quite possibly, they're happy because they know that, as long as we have someone to look down on, we’ll never question those we’re encouraged to look up to. It’s long past time to change that.