Op-ed: The Increase in SNAP is Welcome. Now Let’s Reform the Entire Benefits System | Civil Eats

Op-ed: The Increase in SNAP is Welcome. Now Let’s Reform the Entire Benefits System

‘We have a chance to create a more equitable safety net—one that acknowledges the historic racial inequities that impact Black people and other people of color in the first place.’

groceries EBT SNAP

In early August, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a 25 percent increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The change marks the largest single increase since the start of the program, and when it goes into effect in October, it will bring the average monthly check received by 42 million Americans up from $121 to $157 a month.

That boost will make a difference for families on the edge, and it’s a welcome change from the approach of the last administration, which sought to dismantle the already inadequate and fragile safety net. And while it’s a good start, the whole system needs to be re-thought.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 35 million people were food insecure. In 2020, that number rose to 45 million. Over the last year and a half, SNAP enrollment has grown by approximately more than 13 percent. And while the program made enrollment easier in a number of ways, it was barely able to keep up.

Food advocates have long been aware of the dangers of using SNAP enrollments to assess food insecurity, since the program is chronically underutilized. In addition, there has often been an over-emphasis on emergency and temporary funding to food banks and food rescue organizations instead of increasing funding for SNAP and other benefit programs.

However, COVID made it clear just how vulnerable most Americans are when disaster occurs. The line separating “the poor” from the rest of the population widened to include all those whose identities, histories, and geographies precluded them from owning a second vacation home in which to wait out the deadliest public health crisis of the 21st century.

As a result, navigating these systems suddenly became a bit easier. Throughout the pandemic, I managed a community health network in Brooklyn and helped inform community members of where to go for support. In New York City, the Human Resource Administration (HRA)—the city agency that administers SNAP, disability assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) among other programs—paused recertifications.

“Recerts,” as they’re commonly called, are forms that Public Assistance recipients had to file to prove that their circumstances had not changed and that they were still in need of benefits. Recertification notices often came in the mail with a deadline, and missing this deadline for any reason could result in the case being closed and the recipient having to restart the process.

Because case workers weren’t physically in their offices, however, the system changed almost overnight. It became largely virtual, less stringent—all of which begged the question: Had recerts and other over-bearing bureaucratic requirements ever been necessary?

“It was a major issue, those recertifications,” Ann Belfon, a former case worker at Goodwill, told me. Goodwill was one of the many nonprofits that were contracted to provide job placement assistance and workshops to help them meet their work requirement for benefits.

Case workers who decided to close a recipient’s case if they failed to recertify on time “were not taking into account so many things that could happen—rental assistance, food stamps, childcare cut off—lifelines would be cut off,” she said. Belfon’s approach was informed by her own experience seeking benefits and she says she often felt disrespected by case workers. She decided to take a more empathetic approach to working with clients and would often be more lenient if they missed the deadline.

Another significant and helpful shift in New York and a number of other states has been implementing federal funding for Pandemic EBT, which allowed parents of school-aged children to access additional SNAP benefits to make up for the missed school meals.

For those of us who have had to rely on our nation’s social safety net in the past, seeing it get easier to access food and other necessities is a bittersweet experience. These onerous processes should never had been a part of these programs. And there’s still so much else that needs to change.

A System Designed to Punish, Not Support

I got to know the system first-hand in 2014, the year I lost a job that had symbolically felt like a culminating achievement, a move toward creating a sustainable life for my son and I. As a single mother, a Black woman, and an immigrant, my safety net had to include government assistance.

I decided to enroll in grad school, and I experienced very quickly the hostility that is often expressed toward a Black woman who dares to step out of the workforce and seek education for social and economic mobility. I applied for SNAP, and other benefits programs including childcare assistance, and rent assistance.

I decided to leave my son with a friend while case workers investigated all aspects of my life, ensuring that I was indeed in need of benefits. I had to fill out and discuss personal questionnaires about my son’s father and his birth circumstances, provide signed documents proving our living circumstances, and carry all the documents with me at all times.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

It wasn’t uncommon to spend all day waiting in a space where eating or drinking wasn’t allowed, and uncontrollable children were admonished by security guards whose sexual harassment was routinely normalized. A case worker in a bad mood, a forgotten utility bill, a job that didn’t take you off their website (this actually happened to me) could send you all the way to the back of the line, to restart the process all over again.

Seeing women carted off for screaming or cursing at case workers was a fairly regular occurrence, and I knew that there was very little preventing me from having the same reaction. Jazmine Headly, who was shown in a viral video being violently separated from her child and arrested for sitting on the floor while waiting to access benefits, testified that her experience shed light on “the story of many other people, it’s not just my story.”

The first time I sought public assistance, an older Black man caseworker clasped his large hands slowly and a steady smirk spread across his face. “If we are paying you, you have to work!” he said. I looked on in utter confusion, since I already had a part-time job and was actively looking for more work. But then I realized that this was the spiel he gave everyone who sat in his chair.

The extensive attention given to the process of vetting recipients of SNAP and other benefits is rooted in a generalized distrust of the poor, and a decades-long conservative framework that has centered fraud prevention in policymaking for public assistance. The origins of this framework can be traced to a speech that Ronald Reagan gave in 1976, telling the story of a woman in Chicago who had supposedly, “used 80 names, 30 addresses, and 15 phone numbers to collect benefits that earned her “$150,000 a year.”

The woman he spoke of was Linda Taylor, who in fact defrauded the system of $8,800, and whose actual story is a complex foray into racism and the failure of social safety programs to accurately diagnose and address social determinants of health.

Welfare fraud is what Taylor became infamous for (and what she was prosecuted for) but she was also accused of far more egregious crimes including child trafficking and possibly murder. She had her first child at 14, was possibly mentally ill, and was barred from quality education because she was not white, though often tried to pass as white.

Policymakers have often propped up Taylor’s case as a symbol of rampant fraud, the lazy Black woman, luxuriating on the government dime, while everyone else worked so hard. In reality, fraud accounts for less than 1 percent of the total budget or about $1 billion. In contrast, white collar fraud costs the federal government about $300 billion annually. But the welfare queen myth is so synonymous with public assistance that every point of disbursement—from the federal to the city level—has entrenched a slew of policies supposedly designed to protect against fraud and find ways to remove recipients or deter applicants.

In 1997, then NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani celebrated the removal of 220,000 people from support programs. He called the welfare system “too user friendly” and embarked on a campaign to “end welfare” by the year 2000. He instituted “diversionary and time-consuming mandatory appointments: A single missed appointment led to an application being denied or a case closing.”

Giuliani gave the newly renamed “Job Centers” financial incentives to cut their caseloads. His successor, Michael Bloomberg, continued the “diversion” tactics. A 2008 Public Advocate report found that recipients “face a range of obstacles at Job Centers,” including long wait times, documents being misplaced, miscommunication with HRA staff, and lost records of a prior visits.” Bloomberg also mandated fingerprinting for recipients, profiling and criminalizing folks seeking assistance.

While NYC current Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to address some of these failings, remnants of the tactics remain. Ann Belfon said that organizations the HRA contracted with would get paid to place recipients at jobs, regardless of the type of job and the education level of the recipient.

“Most of the agencies, like Goodwill, were contracted to put people in jobs that were low wage, no benefits. HRA would close the case once the first paycheck was received,” she said. But these low-paying jobs weren’t enough to cover the recipients’ bills, and they would find themselves returning to the application process: wash, rinse, and repeat.

newsmatch mobile logo

Imagining a Truly Supportive Safety Net

On the days when I left the offices feeling belittled or dehumanized, I recited the names of my parents and my grandparents and what they had accomplished. I reminded myself that as long as I provided a roof over my son’s head, and food for him to eat, I was doing my job. I had to remind myself of my own humanity, as others who looked like me took part in a system that sought to take it away from me.

I was privileged enough to have an education and work background that propelled me out of the system faster than others. Many women were and continue to be less fortunate, and the trauma they experience—both from the circumstances that land them in an HRA office as well as the experience of being there—are generationally felt.

Increasing SNAP benefits is important, but this administration and the leaders to come have a chance to create a more equitable safety net—one that acknowledges the historic racial inequities that land Black people and other people of color in these offices in the first place. Imagine if Linda Taylor was seen as a casualty of racist miscegenation laws and systemic racism in every institution, instead of a caricature that became powerful lore that propelled harmful policies for over 50 years.

In recognizing the harm caused by the past framework, we could see women like me and others as individuals and not stereotypes that allow policymakers and agency heads to continue to rationalize a system that prevents Black women from accessing opportunities and then punishes them for seeking help.

“Every client that came and sat with me had a story,” recalled Belfon. “I had a little bit of their background; but I wanted to hear their story [in their own words].”

Imagine an entire system that took her approach. A new social support framework that accounts for centuries of inequity is tragically overdue.

Rae Gomes is a mother, writer, food justice activist, and organizer based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. A
    A system steeped in intentional cruelty. I hope the increase in benefits lasts.

More from

Food Justice

Featured

Priya Fielding-Singh and the cover of

The Inequity of Hunger: An Interview with Priya Fielding-Singh

In her new book, the sociologist talks about how nourishing children has become “an anxiety-provoking and high-stakes endeavor” and positions food access as part of a larger constellation of hardship. 

Popular

University Ag Schools Turn to Big Ag Dollars as Private Donations Dry Up

Could Climate Change Make Food Less Nutritious?

old man checking ripe rice in autumn

Beans May Be the ‘Food of the Future,’ but U.S. Farmers Aren’t Planting Enough

dried beans and a scooper. Photo by Jasmine Waheed on Unsplash

Public Interest Groups Urge the EPA to Regulate Factory Farm Emissions

Hogs are raised on an Iowa farm on July 25, 2018. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images