The Trump administration, brushing aside tens of thousands of protest letters, gave final approval Wednesday to a rule that will remove nearly 700,000 people from the federal food stamp program by strictly enforcing federal work requirements.
That was the headline on a New York Times story this week. The story included a quote from former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who now serves as Trump's agriculture secretary: "Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand."
We're talking about a princely handout here: $134 a month. About $1.50 a meal. Sound like the American dream to you? Maybe if you only have an appetite for ramen. Mostly straight.
Trump and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP as food stamps are known these days, have finalized a rule to tighten work requirements for adults without children who use the program. But don't be fooled by the "without children" phrase. The kids aren't spared hunger either. More on that later.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive that princely $134 SNAP benefit for a maximum of three months during a three-year period — unless they're working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.
Until now, states have been given leeway to waive the three-month time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of re-entering the workforce, or in specific geographic areas or counties where employment has, or had, periods of instability.
But this new rule, which takes effect on April 1, tightens the flexibility states had been allowed. Previously, states could be flexible in counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5%. Now that will be true only if unemployment reaches 6%.
Hamilton County's unemployment rate, like Tennessee's, has been fluctuating around 3 to 4%. In October, 43,114 individuals in Hamilton County (and 421,840 statewide) received SNAP assistance, according to figures on the TN.gov website.
It is unclear how many Hamilton County and Tennessee residents will lose benefits, but officials say that, nationally, about 7% — or one in 12 — of food stamp recipients will lose the aid. The government savings would be an estimated $5.5 billion over five years.
But that's not the only new rule waiting in the wings.
Another one, expected to be approved before the presidential election, would also prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets ($3,500 for a household with a disabled adult) from receiving food stamps.
Think about this. Having more than $2,250 in assets — a clunker car that can get you to your part-time job — will disqualify you.
These changes would strip nearly 3 million people of their benefits, according to the USDA.
And, yes, this one would affect kids. Nearly 1 million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.
It should be obvious that the issue isn't unwillingness to work or how new your car is. The issue is the quality and consistency of jobs available to millions of Americans. After all, we live in a country where almost 40% of the population can't come up with $400 out of their own savings for a surprise health care cost. And research shows that people receiving food assistance are less likely to become ill and require Medicaid expenditures.
What about families? Well, this may be where the real context comes in.
Food stamp eligibility is set at 130% of the poverty level, or $27,729 for a family of three. Working full-time for all 52 weeks of the year at $11 an hour, you'd be making $22,880 and be eligible for food stamps — unless your car and clothes and TV are worth too much.
What would Mr. Rogers have to say about this?
We think he would call it cruel and shortsighted.