The number of food stamp recipients in Hamilton County has dropped by nearly a third from the peak levels reached after the Great Recession, with nearly 20,000 fewer Chattanoogans getting federal assistance compared with the summer of 2013.
Across Tennessee, the decline in enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been even greater with a 37.2% drop in the caseload over the past eight years, trimming food stamp rolls in Tennessee by more than 475,000 people since 2012.
In his State of the Union speech earlier this month, President Donald Trump credited his administration for helping lift people out of poverty and off dependence on food stamps, claiming his administration has helped take 10 million people off of welfare and reduced the number of SNAP benefit recipients by 7 million people over the past three years.
Cheryl Booker, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, echoed Trump's point, crediting the decline in SNAP enrollment "largely to the improvement in Tennessee's economy." Over the past decade, Tennessee employers added more than 530,000 net new jobs, cutting the state's jobless rate by nearly 70% from 10.9% in the summer of 2009 to only 3.3% at the end of last year.
But advocates for low-income people insist the problems of hunger and poverty remain even with more people working. Much of the drop in SNAP enrollment, they say, reflects changes in eligibility rules and concerns among some immigrants about being deported even if their children qualify for food stamps.
By this spring, food stamp rolls could shrink even more. In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be enforcing a number of work requirements that could cause 688,000 more Americans to lose their government food benefits.
"I think there's a lot more to this than an improving economy," said Signe Anderson, director of nutrition advocacy for the Tennessee Justice Center. "Hunger and food insecurity is definitely still a problem that Tennesseans face even if SNAP numbers are going down. There are a lot of people who have turned to emergency food pantries or the food bank or go without."
Anderson said part of the drop in food stamp enrollment reflects a 2018 change that imposed a three-month limit for SNAP benefits over any three-year period for work-eligible residents in Hamilton County. Previously, low-income people were allowed to continue receiving food stamps without any limit even if they were able-bodied and able to work.
One in five children is "food insecure"
Even with more open jobs than available workers in many industries, many households still struggle due to low pay, lack of transportation or lack of adequate health care or insurance.
"The economy is flourishing for many, but it's an economy that has bypassed many other people," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries, which helps thousands of low-income Chattanoogans every year. "Reducing or eliminating SNAP benefits does not solve the growing problem of hunger mitigation. It further exacerbates the problem."
In a 20-county Chattanooga region of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia, 132,050 residents are considered food insecure, meaning they lack "consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life," according to the USDA.
Although the number of such food-insecure people has dropped nearly 10% in Chattanooga in the past five years, one of eight people in the Chattanooga region — including one in five children — still lack access or resources for enough food.
Sophie Moore, director of community outreach and health care partnership for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, said the food bank provides food to anyone in need at no cost to the end consumer.
"Last year, we distributed the equivalent of approximately 13 million meals with our more than 200 nonprofit partner agencies through traditional food pantries, mobile pantries, sack packs and other school programs to address child weekend hunger, emergency food boxes, and other programs," she said. "Oftentimes, SNAP benefits do not last an entire month as intended and recipients, including those with jobs, need help to ensure they have enough food to eat."
USDA limits benefits for able-bodied workers
Under federal rules, able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 to 49 must meet general work requirements. They can do so by being in a workforce training program, volunteering 20 hours per week, or working 20 hours per week.
"However, there are barriers that exist that may prevent people from meeting these work requirements, especially for people living in rural areas with limited job opportunities or without workforce programs, foster children who have aged out of the system who aren't prepared for the workforce, and convicted felons because the jobs available to them are limited," Moore said.
New USDA rules, announced last year and effective April 1, will limit the ability of states to exempt work-eligible adults from having to obtain steady employment in order to receive SNAP benefits. Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, said tightening the work requirement will save about $5.5 billion over five years.
Backers of the tighter rules also think the new rules will encourage more people to work and become more self sufficient.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, said the rule will help move people "from welfare to work" and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said "the changes will encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not an infinitely giving hand."
U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais, R-Tenn., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said in the current economy "there are millions of available jobs and career paths for those able to work" and government benefit programs such as SNAP should "foster a culture of achievement and success," not long-term dependence. The new SNAP rules will still protect people with disabilities or those living in high-unemployment areas, but Desjarlais defended the tighter eligibility rules for able-bodied workers to encourage those who can work to support themselves.
SNAP by the numbers
$122.13 - Average monthly benefit per person
$239.99 - Average monthly benefit per household
36.3 million - Projected number of persons participating in SNAP during fiscal 2020
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Immigrant fears limit applications
Anderson also blamed some of the drop in food stamp enrollment in recent years on immigrant families no longer applying for SNAP benefits because of fears that any member of their family who may be in the country illegally or isn't a U.S. citizen could be detected and deported.
"While immigrants cannot apply for SNAP [unless they are refugees, asylum seekers or survivors of trafficking and domestic violence] they can apply for their children who are born in the U.S.," Anderson said. " The current political climate has made families reconsider applying for SNAP out of fear that they may be targeted."
SNAP benefits are also reduced for those on Social Security, which Chattanoogan Connie Burnett said "hurt me tremendously" when she became homeless after her parents died and she suffered her own health problems. Her SNAP benefits dropped from more than $150 to only $16 a month when she began drawing Social Security benefits.
The 62-year-old retiree has been homeless for most of the past year. SNAP benefits and local relief agencies, including the Community Kitchen, the Chattanooga Mission, the Homeless Health Center and others have helped her to survive.
"It's the sort of [situation] you don't ever see yourself in, but it can happen to anyone," she said. "I's a terrible journey to have to make in one's life, but it's the kind of thing anyone could find themselves in with an unexpected health problem, a job loss or the death of a family member. You just learn to survive. There are a lot of people who will help you, but a lot of people are still in real need and need a helping hand."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.