Catholic leaders say food stamp cuts will harm people, but not put them to work

Washington D.C., Dec 6, 2019 / 02:05 pm (CNA).- A new rule that will disqualify roughly 700,000 people from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, will not help people find or keep employment, leaders of Catholic charitable and social policy organizations told CNA.

“Just because suddenly they’re not eligible for SNAP doesn’t mean they don’t need SNAP. It doesn’t mean they don’t need nutrition assistance,” Julie Bodnar, a policy advisor for the department of Domestic Social Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA.

“So they’re going to turn elsewhere and the Church is going to strive to meet those needs, but it’s hard. There’s no increased resources on our end, so I think people will do their best, but it’s going to be a struggle to try to respond to that increased need,” Bodnar added.

On Dec. 4, the Trump administration officially announced a change in SNAP eligibility rules that will apply to single adults between the ages of 18-49 who do not have children and are not disabled. Such adults qualify for food stamps if they work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months within a three-year period. However, states have until now been allowed to grant waivers for the work requirement in areas with high rates of unemployment.

The new rule tightens restrictions on these waivers, only allowing them in areas where the unemployment rate is 20% above the national average unemployment rate, and at least 6% over a two-year period. The national unemployment rate in October was 3.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This new rule would disqualify 688,000 people from food stamps when it takes effect in April 2020, the USDA told NBC News. It is the first of three new rules being considered by the USDA. If the other two measures pass, millions of people could lose their eligibility for food stamps.

Brian Corbin is the Executive Vice President of Member Services at Catholic Charities USA. Corbin told CNA that the new restrictions violate a principle of Catholic social teaching, which is that “food is a basic right, a basic human right to help fulfill our dignity and flourishing,” he said. “We have to remember that we’re dealing now with people and food and food security.”

Corbin said that many of those who lose their eligibility for food stamps will likely come to Catholic Charities branches throughout the U.S. for help.

He added that most people overestimate the amount of financial assistance food stamp recipients actually get.

“We’re talking about $167 is the average monthly voucher for SNAP,” he said. According to the USDA, the intention of the new restriction on food stamps is to be fair to taxpayers, and to incentivize able-bodied people to return to work. “We’re taking action to reform our SNAP program in order to restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told NBC News.

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch. That’s the commitment behind SNAP, but, like other welfare programs, it was never intended to be a way of life.”

Bodnar said her department welcomes and supports efforts to expand SNAP education and job training programs, rather than measures that disqualify people from food assistance.

“It just doesn’t help meet that goal (of people returning to work) in any concrete way. It’s only a punitive measure.”

Corbin said that while the idea to incentivize people to return to work is good in theory, in practice it will take food away from people who were laid off their jobs or who are living in states experiencing recession.

“First, these are people that are probably struggling because they were laid off or that jobs are not available in certain parts of the country,” Corbin said. “And second, recessions come and go, so this really prevents states from (having) the ability to act appropriately, to respond to the recession.” “And third, a lot of states are not mandated to have employment training programs,” Corbin added, making jobs even more out of reach for people in already high unemployment areas.

Monsignor John Enzler, President and CEO of Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. said he has personally witnessed the hunger of low-income people and was worried the new SNAP restrictions would let more people go hungry.

“My experience is an awful lot of people out there…really are in desperate situations, not of their own wishes or desire, and they need assistance to get themselves out of that situation,” Enzler told CNA.

According to a recent press release from Catholic Charities D.C., the District of Columbia has a food insecurity rate of 14.5% due to food deserts and families living below the poverty line. This means more than 82,000 are food insecure, including 31,000 children.

Enzler said when he was a pastor in a local parish he personally knew of some low-income people who resorted to eating dog food when they couldn’t afford to feed themselves. He has also known of grandmothers who go without food so that they can feed their own grandchildren.

“These are real, honest situations going on,” Enzler said. “That should shock the jeepers out of all of ourselves. The nation’s capital? The capital of the Free World? What are you talking about? Well, it’s true. It’s real.”

Citing chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, the monsignor added that Jesus taught his disciples to care for the poor, the hungry and the thirsty in their midst.

“He actually says on judgment day…we’ll be judged on whether we met Jesus in those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, or ill,” he said. “This is part of the Gospel. This is part of our call to take care of people. And we do the best we can.”

Catholic Charities in D.C. already operates several programs that serve meals to homeless or low-income people along with other forms of assistance. They are currently in the midst of their third annual Virtual Food Drive, through which people can make online donations that will benefit a local food bank and several other food assistance programs that partner with Catholic Charities.

One of those programs is St. Maria’s Meals, a food truck and bike delivery program that provides warm meals to 300 people in need on a weekly basis. The name comes from the wife of St. Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. Enzler said that according to the story of St. Isidore, he would send poor people home to his wife, Maria, and she would feed whoever showed up.

“The legend is that the food never ran out. So basically she and Isidore just took care of people. That’s the Gospel, basically, taking care of people. That’s why it’s Maria’s, because we say our food will not run out. You come to us, we’ll take care of you.”

Last year, Catholic Charities D.C. provided more than 2.5 million meals to people in need and distributed more than 1 million pounds of food to local pantries. They also served 28,000 people through St. Maria’s Meals and more than 32,000 people through a program that provides grocery assistance to recently released prisoners.

Enzler encouraged Catholic leaders to preach out the call to help the poor, and he encouraged Catholics to pray for those in need and to contact their representatives to voice their concerns about the SNAP restrictions.

“With a program like SNAP, basically what the government says is that we’ll help the situation. Without it, it’s going to be more on us,” Enzler said.

“We’ll keep doing the best we can, but our resources are limited. We don’t have anywhere near that amount of money that the government has to do the things we’re called to do. So obviously, we find ourselves limited in our response,” he added.

“What’s the bottom line? People are starving. That’s the bottom line.”

 

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