Investment in sustainable jobs must follow cut to food stamps

After nearly 20 years as a social worker trained in conflict resolution, I have learned some valuable lessons about the ways people communicate with one another. What doesn’t work so well is assuming that someone has bad intentions just because they have different opinions.

For example, I do not personally agree with the Trump administration’s decision to finalize a rule that will cut off food stamps to roughly 688,000 American adults by requiring states to enforce work requirements. Yet, if I practice what I preach, I must make an effort to understand why the president would endorse such a policy. What are its potential benefits?

To start with, the U.S. Agriculture Department said the move will save about $5.5 billion over five years. Although nearly 8,000 households would lose benefits entirely, according to reporting by the New York Times, those cuts would be concentrated in cold northern states that would be most affected by a change in the way heating costs are calculated. Moreover, “the number of families losing benefits is a tiny percentage of the nearly 40 million people who receive benefits, and even $4.5 billion over five years is a trim for a program that cost $68 billion in 2018 alone.”

Moreover, there is nothing wrong with incentivizing people to work. I think that should be one of the most important priorities of any White House. Although this plan cuts benefits for 19% of households on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, it also increases benefits for 16%. The president can make the argument that he is merely reallocating how benefits are distributed while promoting an ideology that he believes is good for the country. He is, after all, the elected leader of the United States, and that is what he was chosen to do.

Fair enough. But what is not being talked about is the living wage. A study at MIT demonstrated that the living wage in the United States is $16.07 per hour in 2017, before taxes, for a family of four (two working adults, two children), compared to $15.84 in 2016. It is one thing to take someone off food stamps in order to encourage them to work (self-sufficiency is synonymous with citizenship), but it is counterproductive, cruel and detrimental to society to merely strip people of food without making work a sustainable option. Just telling people that they need to work because jobs are available is not good enough. What is needed is a comprehensive plan that not only provides people with jobs, but safe and affordable transportation, reliable day care, adequate sick time and paid vacation, health care that meets the real needs of families, work spaces free of harassment and discrimination, and living wages. If Trump is going to save $5 billion by cutting food stamps, he should reinvest that same about of money in these vital areas.

At the end of the day, people need work that works for them, and they need, no matter what misfortune may befall them, food. Food is not a privilege. Food is a human right. If Trump cuts food stamps and leaves hundreds of thousands of Americans without the nutrition they need to survive, that is not just a failed policy; it is an act of aggression.


George Cassidy Payne is a social worker in Rochester. He has degrees in the humanities from St. John Fisher College and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.