Thanks to New SNAP Rules, Millions May Lose Food Aid

On Wednesday, the Trump administration took another step toward achieving a dream of welfare reformers since the Clinton era by tightening the rules around food aid. It’s the first of three major regulatory shifts that could see millions booted from food benefits.

A new rule set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revises work requirements for adults participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a frequent target of conservatives since President Donald Trump took office. The new final rule rolls back the leeway of states to issue waivers, which allow food-aid recipients in areas with high unemployment to continue to receive aid beyond statutory time limits set for the program.

USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue described the waivers as a “loophole” that states used to “effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines” when he testified about the program before Congress in February. Instead, the new USDA rule will adjust the criteria for when and where states can make these requests. The new formula, which uses nationwide historical employment data, will effectively zero out places and populations that struggle with work.

Under current law, “able-bodied” adults without dependents (ages 15 through 49) are required to work at least 20 hours per week (or show an equivalent participation in work training) in order to receive SNAP benefits. There’s a cap on enrollment for those who can’t meet the work requirements, a limit of three months within a three-year period. In places where unemployment is high, states can ask USDA to waive this time limit, allowing people to receive food aid for a longer term.

But as of April 1, 2020, both the standard for these waivers and the areas they apply will be narrowed. The department estimates that some 688,000 individuals will no longer receive SNAP benefits, leading to an estimated savings of $5.5 billion over five years.

“In today’s economy, the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States that the president has sustained, now is the time to help these people engage back to work,” Purdue said in a call with reporters.

More than 141,500 comments about the rule change were submitted during a public feedback period, the overwhelming majority of them negative. With few changes between the rule in its proposed and final forms, it appears that the administration did not heed any criticism. Many more comments were registered today from Democratic lawmakers. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown slammed the rule as “mean spirited” and “despicable.” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy described the rule “the definition of cruelty.”

The rule, which will be published in the Federal Register on December 5, is the first of three regulations to be introduced by the Trump administration. Two other rules—one that would restrict the ability of states to adjust income limits and asset tests for eligibility, and one that would provide a single federal standard for allowances for utility costs in place of state standards—are still being weighed.

All told, if these three restrictions had been in place in 2018, about 3.7 million fewer people (or 2.1 million fewer households) would be eligible for food aid, decreasing annual benefits by $4.2 billion, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis.

“What the final rule does is to tighten the requirements for an area to qualify for those waivers,” says Laura Wheaton, senior fellow for the Urban Institute. “As a result, this will mean that more people are subject to time-limited benefits, unless they’re meeting work requirements. Some of those will lose eligibility for SNAP, because they do not meet the work requirements.”

In the past, states could request waivers for broader areas. For example, within a metro area, there might be a county with high unemployment adjacent to a county with low unemployment. In their requests to USDA, states could combine adjacent counties as a single area for consideration for a waiver for SNAP time limits. Under the new dispensation, states may ask for waivers only for small labor market areas—the smallest geographic area for which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides unemployment data.

The sting will be widespread. Thirty-six states—led by Democratic and Republican governors alike—currently have waivers in place for SNAP time limits in place for areas where unemployment is high. But the impact of the new rule will vary widely from state to state. In Kentucky, for example, Wheaton estimates that 62 percent of the state’s low-income population lives in waived areas (as of 2018). Under the new rule, that share could fall by two-thirds. Some states struggling with high unemployment have statewide waivers in place, among them California, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Now, such statewide waivers are out; in some of those places, high overall unemployment fails to register at the small labor market area level. In Rhode Island and Nevada, the share of the state’s low-income population living in waiver-eligible areas would have fallen to 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, had the rule been in place in 2018. “Some of the states just lose a lot of their access to waivers,” Wheaton says.

Moreover, states must rely on historical unemployment data, which means that in the event of a sudden economic downturn, areas may not qualify for SNAP time-limit waivers until months after the fact, according to Robert Greenstein, president for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under the new rule, an area can qualify for a waiver if the average unemployment rate over a 24-month period has been A) 20 percent higher than the national average over the same period and B) at least 6 percent.

“Far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession,” Greenstein writes. “A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP—its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance.”

Overall, the effects of the new regulation will fall hardest on people of color, people without higher education, and people living in rural areas. A formula based on historic data for overall unemployment will not register deeper unemployment among African Americans, for example, or the challenge that rural residents face in finding new jobs. According to Wheaton’s analysis, if this change to waivers had been in place in 2018, the total number of households participating in SNAP would have fallen by at least 5 percent in nine states. Among the hardest-hit places: Nevada (which would have seen a 11.6 percent reduction in household SNAP participation) and Washington, D.C. (16.9 percent).

Work requirements for welfare is a major domestic goal for the Trump presidency. The administration has issued some far-fetched ideas, including Purdue’s proposal for a Blue Apron–style “Harvest Box” delivery program or a federal catch-all Department of Welfare. Other Republicans have tried sweeping efforts, too: former Maine Governor Paul LePage threatened to withdraw from SNAP if he could’t ban the purchase of sodas, while former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to require drug tests for food aid. Now, though, the administration is narrowing its vision for welfare reform, swapping the ax for the scalpel.

Powered by WPeMatico

Where Tech Companies Spent Millions in Municipal Elections—and Lost

How much political power does $1.5 million buy?

That’s how much Amazon donated to a Seattle Political Action Committee that aims to swing the city council towards a more pro-business agenda. The company, which is headquartered downtown, has influenced the council successfully before, donating $25,000 to a campaign to kill a per-employee head tax that would have gone towards funding homelessness initiatives in the city.

This time, according to early voting results, Amazon didn’t win.

To be fair, it didn’t quite lose, either. Out of the seven city council candidates Amazon supported, four appear poised to win their elections. (One of the four, Jim Pugel, is only leading by a tiny margin.) That’s not quite enough to secure a majority on Seattle’s nine-member council, but enough to move the needle.

Another of the pro-business candidates, Egan Orion, struck a key blow, likely defeating Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations. She branded the head tax the “Amazon tax,” and called this week’s election a fight over the “soul of Seattle.” (Supporters note that Sawant came back from a more than seven-point deficit during her last election, and that her fate won’t be assured until all the votes are tallied at the end of this week.)

Framing the stakes of the election, Sawant told the New York Times recently: “The question is: Is Seattle going to become a playground for only the very wealthy, or is it going to be a city that serves the needs of ordinary people?”

Amazon wasn’t the only business that spent big on city campaigns. From San Francisco to Jersey City, tech companies poured money into nudging the outcome of ballot questions on whether to regulate, tax, or expand their power, in some cases contributing to new spending records at the city level. And despite million-dollar campaigns launched by companies like Juul and Airbnb, Amazon wasn’t the only one to see voters defy them.

In San Francisco, a measure that would have overturned the city’s e-cigarette sales ban lost by an overwhelming margin, meaning the moratorium will hold. Initially, venture-backed vape pen company Juul spent $11 million on a campaign to overturn the ban, but it pulled its support before the vote amid public health concerns.

In Jersey City, a bill to regulate the 3,000 Airbnb rentals that locals complain are flooding the city with unruly tourism passed, despite a $4.2 million campaign by the short-term rental platform to defeat it. Airbnb blamed the hotel lobby, which spent only $1 million.

And also in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft took a different strategy: They both supported a small tax of 3.25 percent on most Uber and Lyft rides, introduced as an alternative to a more punitive tax that could have been levied without voter approval. The ride-hailing companies contributed comparatively modest amounts—according to campaign finance records, Lyft donated $400,000 and Uber $300,000—and the initiative was leading slightly as of publication.

Tech-money-fueled campaigns aren’t new in San Francisco. Last year, a tax on businesses to support affordable housing and homelessness not unlike Seattle’s was on the ballot, inspiring entities like Lyft, Stripe, Square, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to donate hundreds of thousands each to the effort to defeat it. But in that case, Salesforce and its CEO Mark Benioff also dropped almost $5 billion to pass it. Though the measure was approved by voters, it won by less than a two-thirds margin, and is currently tied up in court.

Amazon’s spending in Seattle was part of a particularly notable phenomenon: The council race was the most expensive in the city’s history, even as it tested the strength of a new initiative intended to curb big money in politics.

Under a “democracy voucher” program that came into effect this year, all registered voters in the city were sent four $25 vouchers to spend on any candidates they wanted to support—but only those who agreed to spend less than $150,000 on their general election campaigns. When business interests in the city banded together with the Chamber of Commerce to start a PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), and the cash started pouring in, candidates who had initially opted into the program asked to opt out, worried they wouldn’t be able to compete without hustling for more money.

By Election Day, the New York Times reported that “11 of the 12 general election candidates who participated in the voucher program had been released from the limits.” CASE pulled in more than $4 million, with a quarter coming from Amazon, and the rest from other companies with Seattle-area offices, like Google, Expedia, Starbucks and Microsoft.

M. Lorena González, one of two council members who represents the entire city and wasn’t up for reelection this year, is sponsoring a bill that would tighten campaign finance restrictions even more, limiting the amount corporations can donate to PACs, and effectively abolishing super PACs like the Chamber of Commerce’s CASE.

“We operate in an environment where corporations like Amazon can make unlimited contributions, because there are no regulations,” she told CityLab. “As a result you saw them put a fistful of cash on the scales of democracy to tip the city council in their favor.”

Even presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren condemned Amazon’s spending. “In a city struggling with homelessness, Amazon is dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people,” Sanders tweeted.

CASE argues that the candidates it endorsed will not only be good for business, but for the city: Its website says they all “demonstrate a strong commitment to improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for all Seattleites,” particularly when it comes to easing traffic congestion and improving transit, instituting systemic reforms around homelessness, and supporting local business growth. Polls conducted by the Chamber and local newspapers showed that residents were disappointed with the current council, and ready for change.

González noted that what aligns several of the CASE-endorsed candidates is also an emphasis on maintaining Seattle’s “regressive tax system,” “using punitive criminal justice system tools to address homelessness,” and “not tackling criminal justice reform as a whole.” (CASE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

With Amazon achieving less than a majority hold on the council, the takeaway some Seattle progressives left with Wednesday was that it could have been worse. “Imagine the Chamber and Amazon honchos this morning looking at City Council strategy for next year,” Seattle’s former Democratic mayor, Mike McGinn, tweeted. “Those business honchos are not sitting there clapping each other on the back saying ‘We killed it last night!’ They’re saying ‘crap—how the hell do we get to five votes on anything—we have completely lost control of the council.’” He added that during his term as mayor from 2010 to 2013, the Chamber of Commerce held seven of the nine seats, giving it a stronger pro-business bent.

But Amazon’s intervention shows that its interest in—and impact on—politics is only growing in the wake of the struggle over the head tax. On city council candidates, Amazon only spent $130,000 in 2015, according to campaign finance records, meaning their spending increased by more than 650 percent this year. (According to WUSA9, Amazon also spent almost $300,000 on Republican and Democratic house and senate races in Virginia, the state where it’s planning another large campus.)

And its spending is not always in opposition to funding public initiatives. This year, the company contributed $400,000 at the state level to join progressives in opposing a cut to car registration fees that would slash transit funding precipitously (Microsoft spent $650,000). Despite their opposition, it looks like the measure is going to pass.

This spring, the power of big spending will likely be tested again. California’s bill reclassifying gig workers as employees—which could pose an existential threat to sharing-economy companies like Uber and Lyft—could be challenged in a ballot measure funded by the two ride-hailing companies and Postmates, a fooddelivery app. Together, they’ve already contributed $90 million to the effort. That’s 60 Seattle city councils worth.

Powered by WPeMatico