‘Merry Christmas, Losers’
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‘Merry Christmas, Losers’

Trump’s Let-Them-Eat-Cake Moment: Agriculture Department Cutting Food Assistance; Children, Seniors, Disabled Hit the Hardest

Bill Schleicher (Photo by Miriam Berkley)

Bill Schleicher

In a pre-Christmas assault on the poorest Americans, the Trump administration has finalized the first of several planned regulatory slashes that will tear food from the mouths of 4 million who depend on the food stamp and school lunch programs for their basic nutrition.

Hardest hit by the $10 billion package of cuts will be children, seniors, people with disabilities and members of low-paid working families, said Feeding America, a nationwide network of food pantries that provides billions of free meals.

“How the hell can he do that when people are hungry?” asked Alan Schweidel, a feisty New York cabbie. “Trump claims to be a good Christian, but he would probably call Christ a socialist for caring about poor and hungry people,” he told DC Report. “If food stamps need money, let Trump raise the taxes on his own high-income bracket.”

The massive 14% cuts in the $70 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were overwhelmingly rejected by Congress.

The massive 14% cuts in the $70 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, widely known as food stamps) were overwhelmingly rejected by Congress and protested by an extraordinary outpouring of over 300,000 public comments. Unmoved, Trump and the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) are ripping the benefits from 2 million households and taking free lunches from 1 million students.

End Run

After an overwhelming (330-83) bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives voted down his attempt to chop SNAP funds by 25% in the 2018 farm bill, Trump (again) decided to circumvent Congress, this time by having the USDA slash participation and costs through regulatory changes.

The cutoff of federal food aid will help finance Trump’s $1.5 billion tax giveaway to business and billionaires and his $28 billion payoff to agribusiness to reduce the damage of his trade wars and garner rural votes. SNAP feeds 42 million lower-income Americans in 40 states and Washington, D.C. “This is the money that puts food on their tables,” said Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute.

Red States Hit Hard

The suffering of the working families Trump promised to help will be particularly hard in red states. More than half of those being cut off live in states that voted for him in 2016, with 328,000 losing sustenance in Florida and 400,000 in Texas, including 34% of that state’s elderly recipients, said Sarah Lauffer of the Mathematica research firm.

As most Americans prepared to feast on 50 million Christmas hams and turkeys, Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue acted Dec. 4 to gut governors’ right to waive harsh SNAP work requirements in areas of economic hardship where few jobs are available. Barely disguised as a revised regulation to close (imaginary) loopholes, this first cut would take food aid from 755,000 people and shrink SNAP costs by $5.5 billion.

“Driving the vulnerable into hunger just as Christmas approaches exposes the deep and shameful cruelty of the Trump administration,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Public Opposed

When the rule changes were proposed, the public comments that flooded in were overwhelmingly negative, but Trump and Perdue didn’t care. The other cuts — expected to be approved before the 2020 election — would save $4.5 billion, according to USDA estimates, by (1) taking 568 million meals a year off tables in 29 colder states through rigid restrictions on how they calculate home heating costs in determining eligibility,  (2) stripping food stamps from 3.1 million people who qualify because they receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and (3) revoking automatic free-lunch eligibility for 982,000 school kids in families that have already met SNAP eligibility requirements.

“Children will be hungry at home and in school,” said Jim Weill, head of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC)) in Washington, D.C. Drawing on decades of experience with public schools, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said students will “go to bed hungry and get to school distracted by basic needs and unable to focus on learning.”SNAP and school meals “play a critical role in helping children grow up healthy and educated,” she said. Extensive research shows that nutritional deprivation damages students’ cognitive and emotional development and causes behavioral problems.

“The arbitrary SNAP food cutoff would harm the people our members serve,” said Steven Kreisberg, research director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union’s 1.6 million members include tens of thousands who cook and serve school lunches and administer the SNAP program. The mayors of 70 cities, normally the workers’ opponents in contract negotiations, agreed with the progressive union and charged that the cuts would hurt local economies as well as childrens’ health.

Call Congress

“President Trump said he would protect working people, but every day he shows he doesn’t respect us,” said Yolette Green, a member of AFSCME Local 1549 and one of 2,200 civil service Eligibility Specialists who register poor New York City residents for food stamps. The local urged its 14,000 members to telephone Congress to oppose the “outrageous cuts,” but the workers’ voices and their representatives’ votes had no effect because democracy didn’t matter in Trump’s crusade against the poor.

“A lot of people who are working full-time need SNAP because they just don’t make enough in today’s economy to feed their families decently,”  Green told DC Report. She took the job “to help people in need” and also volunteers after work every Friday night at the Harlem food pantry run by the St. Charles Borromeo Church.

Statistics bear out her personal observation: A recent survey by Feeding America shows that 43% of people using food banks are in families with one or more members working full time.

“Cutting SNAP is cruel, wrong on the merits and exactly the opposite of what Congress voted for,” said FRAC Legal Director Ellen Vollinger.

“It’s criminal to take food from hungry people,” said Agnes Molnar a founder of Community Food Advocates, which helped convince the New York City school system to make lunch free for all 1.1 million students, to eliminate the “poverty stigma” of not paying.

According to the USDA’s analysis, the current cuts will also wipe out up to 160,000 jobs, because each SNAP dollar generates up to $1.80 in total economic activity. As that stimulus shrinks, farmers and small businesses will suffer along with hungry Americans.

Slow Wage Growth

Despite the stock market gains Trump crows about, wage growth has been poor and SNAP cases with working recipients have now hit an all-time high of 45% nationwide, said Brookings Institution economist Diane Schanzenbach. Almost half of U.S. workers aged between 18 and 64 have low-wage jobs with median pay of $18,000 a year, Brookings found.

“On the surface, these are administrative changes, but clearly the intent is to cut spending on the needy,” said Public Benefits Advocate Kiana Davis of the Urban Justice Center in New York. Unsatisfied with the USDA executive actions, in his 2020 budget proposal, Trump calls for another $2 billion cut in safety net programs vital to low- and middle-income households. The two largest are $777 billion from Medicaid and another $220 billion from SNAP over the next decade (30%).

The new cuts would “increase poverty, widen income and racial disparities, and drive up the number of households that struggle to afford the basics,” said the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. CBPP found a particular animus toward the poor, with 53% of the cuts targeting low-income programs, which constitute only 29% of such entitlement programs overall.

The SNAP and school lunch slashes are “only the latest in a long list of cuts to assistance working families count on to provide for basic necessities,” said Congress member Martha Fudge (D-Ohio). “Instead of a war on poverty, this president has declared war on our most vulnerable citizens.”

December 25, 2019