Back to Normal? Cities Say, ‘No Thanks’

The pandemic has fundamentally changed our perception of how we can live, work, and move. We’ve figured out how to get goods and services without jumping in the car. We’ve learned that all sorts of jobs can be done from home offices. And we’ve learned that people like, and want, to walk and bike as part of their daily journey. Cleaner air, quieter neighborhoods, and healthier residents can be among the positive outcomes of the crisis for cities that were on their heels with traffic and congestion before. Smarter mobility can help retain these benefits.

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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.

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This Thanksgiving, Give Thanks for Public Transit

Living in a city can sometimes feel like a video game won by the player who finds the perfectly curated experience: culturally diverse (but not so much as to threaten) and devoutly authentic. As we pack up for the dreaded inconvenience of Thanksgiving travel, I am here to tell you that the winning experience is right under your nose: It’s called public transit. Take a moment and be grateful for it.

Let me explain by way of a story.

Last year, during a trip from San Francisco to see Brooklyn-based family, I woke up early one morning to return our rental car and then hop the subway into Manhattan for a meeting. The closest rental car spot was in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighborhood I had never explored. After I dropped the car off, the rental car representative drove me over to Brownsville, another neighborhood I’d never visited, to catch the inbound 4 train. Still groggy, I climbed the weathered green stairs up to the elevated tracks above Livonia Avenue.

When I pulled my attention away from my phone to scan the platform and see who my fellow commuters were, I was pleasantly reminded that Brownsville is known for its West Indian population and, as I am not West Indian, I was the outlier.

That feeling—of being pulled out of my bubble and plopped into someone else’s very different everyday universe—is something I miss about living in New York. It is actually one of New York’s superpowers, and the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) has a lot to do with that. A robust, heavily-used subway system is the spoon that mixes our urban melting pots. It cuts seamlessly across the boundaries of little ethnic enclaves, scrambling up everyone’s best attempts to stay with their people.

Whether we’re talking about subways, commuter trains, or buses, they all have the ability to shoehorn us right into a complete stranger’s life for a survivable stretch of time—a trade we make in exchange for it taking us from point A to B, or in this case, to family.

But mobility companies have other ideas. As they present us with a glut of new options, they chip away at ridership on municipal transportation systems plagued by deferred maintenance and it becomes easier to overlook public transit’s social utility. All the new transportation tools out there—the scooters, the on-demand rides, the dockless bicycles—they all tout their convenience. And convenience is king, especially if you live in cities. But the problem with maximizing convenience is that—and please forgive me for saying so—other people are enormously inconvenient. To maximize convenience is to essentially minimize human contact.

Other people have terrible taste in music and listen to it too loud, they eat things that you don’t like the smell of, they never move fast enough, and they have the gall to talk too loudly about their lives when you are tired, or have a headache, or just want a brief moment of silence.

If you take an Uber or a Lyft, you will avoid all of those irritants, which I get it is a big part of the appeal. But conversely if you avoid public transportation, you will also vastly reduce the odds of being exposed to new music, unfamiliar food, news from someone else’s perspective, stories about how Uncle Alvin argued with Aunt Julie about homophobia and politics nonstop over Thanksgiving dinner, or—and this is the big one—having it visually and sometimes physically impressed upon you repeatedly that you are not the most important person in the world. Other people are all out there being inconvenienced while traveling to their weird families for Thanksgiving just like you.

Reminding you that you are inconsequential is what cities do. It comes complimentary! By dint of their ecosystem of inconveniences, cities force you to reckon with being an actual member of society. There is even a fair argument to be made that that is exactly what draws us to cities: They beat the hell out of us and we love them for it. Public transit is their best tool for doing so. It puts you in a confined space teeming with people you might never otherwise decide to spend time with.

A world without public transit is one where you are much less likely to be completely outside your comfort zone. Your Thanksgiving travel, and all of your commuting, would be the suburbia of transportation: much more convenient, definitely more expensive, and it will make you lonelier than King Midas. Be grateful for the inconvenience of travel. Convenience is the opposite of community.

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