Last week, perhaps in an effort to mentally pull out of Montana’s long winter months, I organized my home office, working my way through a decade’s worth of various files, folders, and scraps of paper I’d saved for whatever reason. Some, like quotes or story ideas, I’d saved because I am a writer and writers do things like keep journals they wrote in when they were 10. Others, like pay stubs, taxes, utility bills, and child support documents, I’d held onto out of an old habit.
For several years, when I worked a scattered schedule of hours cleaning houses while putting myself through college and raising my young daughter on my own, I always carried around three months’ worth of income and expenses in a purple folder. Because of my irregular schedule, and the hand-written personal checks I received instead of pay stubs, it seemed as if I constantly needed to prove to someone that I was, in fact, in need. That I was verifiably poor.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps) was the one program we could rely on back then, even though it was difficult to sign up for it sometimes. It was, by all accounts, predictable, and something I could budget for. Most importantly, by checking the “SNAP” box on other paperwork, like my daughter’s free school lunches, our utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and both of my daughters’ Medicaid, I automatically qualified for benefits. No questions, no long phone conversations, no missing work to spend an afternoon waiting to talk to a caseworker. This is called broad-based categorical eligibility, and it faces extinction, joining many other cuts in the House Agriculture Committee’s 2018 Farm Bill.
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During almost six hours of recent debates over the bill, dubbed the “Conaway Bill” after Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX), who presented it without much sub-committee discussion beforehand, House Democrats spent the majority of the time angrily raking the proposed repeals and amendments surrounding the nutrition program focused on food insecurity.
“This bill as it is written kicks people off the SNAP program,” the committee’s ranking member, Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota barked in his opening statements. “The chairman calls it self-selection. Call it whatever you want, it’s reducing the SNAP rolls.”
The “self-selection” Peterson is referring to is Conaway’s plan to force people to complete additional paperwork. SNAP will now require recipients to prove they have worked enough hours to qualify for the program by submitting statements at the end of every month. If a person fails to do this, they’ll lose benefits for 12 months; the next time it’s 36. That’s four years of being ineligible for food benefits for not submitting a single piece of paper or failing to meet the work requirements for a single month. Conaway refers to this as self-selecting because he considers any failure to complete paperwork to be the same as a recipient opting out of the program on their own accord. Representative David Scott (D-GA) argued it was “additional duplicate confusing paperwork requirements” put in the bill “designed to confuse folks.”
When I was in need, I had to reapply for a program every few months, whether it was SNAP, WIC coupons for milk and cereal, or child care grants. Since I was self-employed and supplemented my income with student loans, I had to provide proof of the hours I spent in clients’ homes, either by receipt of deposit of monies earned or a statement from the client. It was exhausting, labor-intensive, and often meant many hours on the phone, or at the department’s office, waiting for several hours in line—time that cost me jobs and money.
By repealing the broad-based categorical eligibility, severing the link between SNAP and programs like free school lunches and LIHEAP, many people will be forced to submit applications for several kinds of benefits separately, even having to show actual utility bills to get the amounts deducted from their income. Currently, folks who qualify for LIHEAP get a standard utility allowance, much like the standardized deductions in taxes. “This is a backdoor way to kick people off the program,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), calling out the unfairness in severing the ties between SNAP and LIHEAP. “You exempted elderly people from producing utility bills but you didn’t exempt disabled people.” In a later round of questioning, Maloney repeatedly asked the chairman and other committee members why this was, paused, and said their silence was the answer he needed.
In my office, I ran my hand over that weathered, purple folder before placing it in a larger one labeled “Single Mom Stuff.” A box full of old paperwork sat next to my feet, including a half-inch thick packet of documents I’d compiled just three years ago in an attempt to receive a grant for child care. In it, I’d tried to explain what I did as a freelance writer, and how I’d managed to work up until that point with a months-old infant and older kid in first grade. When the letter came to tell me I made $100 too much to qualify, I called my caseworker, who said, “Well, you work late at night when your children are sleeping, anyway, so you don’t really need child care.” I almost hissed at her that working until 2am wasn’t exactly by choice.
For 2 million people who will lose SNAP benefits under the new Farm Bill, and the millions of others who will eventually “self-select” to no longer receive them, either by not getting a utility bill or proof of work hours submitted on time, it undoubtedly won’t be by choice, either.