For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple, clear and wrong. When voters fall for that H.L. Mencken truism, someone wins an election. Someone else always pays a price. Voters should remember that equation.
SNAP, the food assistance program formerly known as food stamps, is a massive and expensive federal subsidy. The Great Recession drove program costs to nearly $80 million by 2013. Now, work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents are ramping up.
Creation of federal aid programs like food stamps during the Great Depression kicked off a never-ending debate. Does requiring more work in return for receiving aid solve the problem of poverty or compound it?
When there are no jobs, or illness or disability make someone incapable of working, hunger seems like an unacceptable penalty. Surely in an economy where unemployment is extremely low, however, work should be available for those who are willing and able enough to do it.
That simple and clear equation is wrong, according to studies of states that are aggressively raising work requirements for SNAP eligibility. Poor people’s lives are harder these days, but low unemployment and work requirements have not made people any more successful at finding jobs sufficient to feed families.
In four counties in West Virginia where able-bodied SNAP recipients are required to work or be in training at least 20 hours a week, there is no evidence that employment numbers have gone up. The same is true in other states.
The New York Times validated a study on the impact of SNAP work requirements by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. Using a new dataset analysis, the study found that work requirements had no impact on the number of hours actually worked. Instead, those with the worst job prospects simply quit applying for federal aid.
Simple solutions are being applied to other problems involving the poor. The Trump administration wants Los Angeles, where the homeless population has exploded, to allow more police sweeps to empty street encampments. Out of sight, out of mind. Simple.
When jobs available pay less than a living wage or rents are unaffordable, the solution should not be hunger or homelessness in the richest nation on earth. Nor should it be to simply throw people off government aid, making it look like the problem has gotten smaller.
Believing that social issues, like poverty, have simple answers is clearly just wrong.