Until a change to federal food assistance requirements takes effect, adults without jobs can count on help buying food during hard times.
That benefit is especially helpful as people short on money try to remain housed or, if they’re experiencing homelessness, try to find a place to live.
President Donald Trump is tightening the requirements to obtain minimal assistance to stave off hunger, reducing the number of people who are exempt from work requirements. In Washington state, it will make life harder for more than 75,000 18-to-49-year-olds who are expected to lose Washington’s Basic Food benefits with the change. As of April, these Basic Food recipients will have three months of benefits, at most, before they must meet federal work requirements.
This significant departure will jolt the lives of many vulnerable Washington residents. In every county except King, unemployment is higher than 2.8%, the current minimum to eliminate work requirements for food assistance. By moving that county unemployment threshold to 6%, 26 counties’ adults who are under 50, not raising children and not disabled — but receive food assistance — face a new reality. Its terms: either find a job or training program for at least 80 hours each month, or lose food benefits after three months.
This shift is expected to cut benefits for 688,000 Americans who depend on public assistance to feed themselves.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this change will save $5.5 billion over five years. That calculation has an unjustifiable human cost in Washington. Almost 60% of this group of food-assistance recipients statewide have significant physical- or behavioral-health issues that don’t qualify as disabling, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services. More than 43% experience homelessness.
The vast tracts of Washington where low-income residents rely on seasonal work — particularly in agricultural and tourist sectors — will be especially penalized. Fishing, forestry and picking fruit don’t create year-round jobs. Much of rural Washington doesn’t have a commercial sector large enough to give these workers even steady minimum-wage paychecks.
“The jobs that are plentiful in these communities aren’t plentiful year-round,” said Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy for the nonprofit food bank distributor Northwest Harvest.
Retail workers with unstable hours are also at risk of losing qualification, Wong said. Additionally, the statewide Basic Food Employment and Training program that can help the jobless qualify for benefits trains fewer than 7,000 students monthly on average. This federal change is not coupled with any boost to workforce training capacity, Wong said.
Two additional Trump administration proposals to cut holes in the food-benefits safety net nationwide are expected to follow this move. When all three are enacted, the Urban Institute estimates 157,000 Washingtonians could lose public food aid. Northwest Harvest and its like cannot fill the void. Food stamps provide 12 meals for every one that comes from a food bank, Wong said.
“Charity is not enough to meet the needs of hungry people,” she said.
Depriving food from the needy is poor public policy. Those out-of-work must be provided nutritious food to stay in health to find and keep employment. Federal policy should reduce barriers to the workforce, not cruelly raise them. This shift must be reversed.