The first half of President Donald Trump’s term has been tough—sabotage of the Affordable Care Act and adoption of Medicaid work requirements, oppressive immigration policies, and attempts to roll back fair housing laws have taken their toll on families with low incomes and their advocates. When I joined 1,100 of my poverty-fighting colleagues at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. recently, there was a common sentiment: we are tired.
We rejoiced last year when we successfully defended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Congress reauthorized the Farm Bill without expanding harmful work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). Our celebration ended, however, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule change to do an end-run around Congress and limit SNAP benefits for ABAWDs anyway.
Currently, ABAWDs are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years unless they work at least 20 hours per week, but states can waive the time limit in counties with a high unemployment rate. The proposed USDA rule would make it harder for states to exercise the waiver option—an unwise move as economists are warning us that another recession may be on the horizon.
Additionally, vulnerable families are still reeling from the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history, which forced thousands of federal employees to go for more than a month without a paycheck and created further hardship for many households with low incomes. Affected services included SNAP, housing programs, health care on tribal land and other basic measures that are critical to short-term survival and long-term stability for thousands of families.
So there’s a lot of work yet to be done, but anti-hunger advocates aren’t backing down. At the conference, Delaware Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, whose family used food assistance when she was young, energized us with her call to have each other’s backs and keep fighting.
National Low Income Housing Coalition President Diane Yentel connected food insecurity to housing instability, noting that our biggest obstacle to addressing housing issues is a lack of political will.
LaQuita Honeysucker of the United Food and Commercial Workers called for an increase in SNAP benefits to better equip families to weather an emergency like the shutdown and grow the economy.
For the first time, the conference hosted panels dedicated to food security among indigenous people and the LGBTQIA+ community. Experts on hunger among older adults shared the alarming fact that food insecurity within that population has increased by 45% since 2001. Other speakers shed light on the connection between discrimination and food insecurity, and presented a tool to help people understand and address systemic racism.
We learned about the latest research showing that increasing SNAP benefits reduces emergency department use, hospitalization and healthcare costs for a number of medical conditions such as pregnancy, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, especially at the end of the month when benefits would have otherwise run out. As a health policy nerd, I was geeked to hear Dr. America (otherwise known as Dr. Sanjeev Sriram) talk about how to engage physicians in the fight against hunger.
The conference provides an opportunity for Michigan’s dedicated community of anti-hunger advocates to visit with members of Congress. We had some great conversations with our elected officials about the importance of food assistance programs to veterans, how SNAP empowers people to work, and the challenges of educating children to make healthy food choices in the wake of weakened nutrition standards for school meals.
The evidence is in: adequate healthy food is essential for our families, communities and economy to thrive. The threats to struggling families coming down the pipeline may be daunting but we all must keep fighting. Get the latest news, compelling data and advocacy tools from Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center. Share your story about how food and nutrition programs have made a difference for your family. Tell USDA not to punish working families with a stricter ABAWD rule.
Our Farm Bill success shows that we are a powerful force when we stand together. Let’s keep that momentum and continue to stand strong in the months to come.