The Debt Ceiling Deal Is an “Eff You” to Poor People

The debt ceiling deal is a cruel agreement that imposes new work requirements on SNAP recipients and bureaucratic hurdles for those who still qualify. It will kick people off the rolls and inflict pain, seemingly randomly, with no regard for the human toll.

The new SNAP work requirements will inflict pain on poor people and accomplish nothing else. (John Moore / Getty Images)

A debt limit deal has been reached. The deal includes new rules for the food stamp program:

The bill imposes new work requirements for food stamps on adults ages 50 to 54 who don’t have children living in their home. Under current law, those work requirements only apply to people age 18 to 49. The age limit will be phased in over three years, beginning in fiscal year 2023.

The bill would also exempt veterans, the homeless and people who were children in foster care from food-stamp work requirements — a move White House officials say will offset the program’s new requirements, and leave roughly the same number of Americans eligible for nutrition assistance moving forward.

The rules being extended to ages fifty to fifty-four require individuals to complete, record, and report eighty hours of work in a month, either in the form of actual paid employment or by participating in an uncompensated “work program” organized by the government. The maximum monthly SNAP benefit for an individual is $281, which makes the eighty-hour work program route effectively the same as a job that pays $3.51 per hour. This is less than half the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Indiscriminate Culling of the Rolls

Most of the discourse about this change has been centered on the philosophical debate about the justness of conditioning benefit receipt on labor market activation and on the empirical debate about what effect these kinds of requirements actually have on employment.

These are interesting debates, but they miss the more mundane administrative reality of these kinds of rule changes. More than anything else, what happens when you tighten the requirements like this is that existing benefit recipients fail to realize that the rules have changed and that they need to submit new forms in order to keep their benefits going. This results in them being disqualified from benefits even if they are actually meeting the new requirements.

So while, in theory, this sort of reform aims to distinguish the active SNAP beneficiaries from the inactive SNAP beneficiaries and threaten benefit cuts to the latter in order to get them to take up work or a work program, in reality, this reform just uses information-dissemination frictions and paperwork burdens to indiscriminately cull the SNAP rolls of both active and inactive beneficiaries.

This happened in 2018 when Arkansas tightened work rules for Medicaid receipt. After that change, only 20 percent of people affected by the new rules even filled out the relevant forms and only 6 percent reported enough work to meet the requirements.

It happened again this year when the COVID-era Medicaid eligibility rules were rolled back. This change was meant to not only kick people off the program who would be ineligible for Medicaid but for the COVID-era expansion of the program. In practice, the vast majority of those who have lost coverage during the rollback have done so for procedural reasons related to failure to fill out new forms.

Early data shows that many people lost coverage for procedural reasons, such as when Medicaid recipients did not return paperwork to verify their eligibility or could not be located. The large number of terminations on procedural grounds suggests that many people may be losing their coverage even though they are still qualified for it. Many of those who have been dropped have been children. . . .

Other states have also removed a large number of Medicaid recipients for procedural reasons. In Indiana, nearly 90 percent of the roughly 53,000 people who lost Medicaid in the first month of the state’s unwinding were booted on those grounds. In Florida, where nearly 250,000 people lost Medicaid coverage, procedural reasons were to blame for a vast majority.

If we actually had some administrative ability to apply these new SNAP rules to only zero out the incomes of inactive recipients, then the philosophical and empirical debates would be much more compelling. But the actual policy we are talking about is randomly kicking out a bunch of fifty- to fifty-four-year-old SNAP recipients regardless of whether they are actually active.

The Veteran Exemption Is Telling

To have a policy discourse, you need policy intellectuals of various political leanings to generate justifications for various policy choices. But justifications only work as justifications insofar as they connect to certain consensus values about what makes a policy good or bad.

This creates a strange situation for conservative policy intellectuals, because the welfare policy opinions of conservative voters and politicians are largely driven by resentments and punitive impulses that are not regarded as relevant to good policymaking. The role of conservative policy intellectuals thus becomes coming up with arguments that, though they don’t actually motivate conservative policymaking, nevertheless operate as justifications in a way that is legible to policy debates.

In the case of work requirements for SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, and similar programs, the real-life appeal is largely rooted in the desire to harm the kind of people who are imagined to fail the requirements: druggies, layabouts, and so on. Many think these kinds of people are scum and don’t want to see them receiving income.

But “fuck those people” doesn’t count as a justification within the norms of policy debate, and so conservative intellectuals are left trying to argue that these kinds of work requirements are actually good for the people who are subject to them. It nudges them out into work, which gives them meaning and community, and puts them in a position to advance in the labor market, which gives them more money.

This kind of stuff is entertaining to some extent, but the policymakers clearly do not think like this because, if they did, these rules wouldn’t always come with a laundry list of exemptions for sympathetic populations.

In this case, the SNAP work requirements are not going to be applied to veterans. This is obviously because veterans are a venerated group in our society. But if work requirements are good for the people who are subject to them, as conservative policy intellectuals claim, then they should especially be applied to venerated groups, like veterans, who we want good things for, right?

How Are These People Supposed to Live?

Unlike most developed countries, the United States does not have what is often called a “social assistance” benefit — i.e., a last-ditch benefit that catches people who are otherwise unable to piece together a bare-minimum income from the market or the welfare state. The closest we have to that is SNAP, but SNAP has so many eligibility restrictions, which are now getting worse, that it does not function as a social assistance benefit. SNAP’s $281 per month in food vouchers is also nowhere near a bare-minimum income.

Elsewhere, social assistance at least nominally answers the question of how certain kinds of people who fall through all the cracks of the ordinary income system are supposed to live. These are usually very stingy benefits with very strict means tests, but they at least exist and serve this important function as a last-ditch protection.

But what is our answer to how these kinds of people are supposed to live in the United States? It’s weird that we don’t even seem to ask the question, let alone make any real effort to answer it.

What do we want a fifty-two-year-old who does not have a job and gets cut off of food stamps to do exactly? Beg on the streets? Die? Do crime? Seriously, what’s the idea? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?