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'I won’t be able to have healthy food': millions of Americans to lose lifeline as Trump cuts food stamps

Michael Sainato

When James Fauntleroy lost his sales job in the summer he quickly found his social security disability benefits did not provide enough to live on. So he turned to a vital lifeline relied upon by many Americans on hard times – food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap).

Fauntleroy, 35, initially received an approval letter, which noted he would receive $197 a month starting immediately. That was enough to help him put food on his table.

But then the bad news came.

“In the beginning of September, I received another letter from the Florida department of children and families stating that my approved amount would change from $197 to $16,” said Fauntleroy, who lives in Orlando, Florida.

Fauntleroy is one of about 40 million low-income Americans who receive at least some Snap benefits every year, a program for which the Trump administration is currently rolling out new rules that will reduce these benefits even further, and make millions of Americans ineligible to receive them. Some people, especially those with disabilities, were already finding it hard to get by on current benefits or falling through the cracks of the system. Now they fear the strict new requirements will make their situations even worse.

For Fauntleroy – who suffers from a kidney disorder – the food stamp cuts are a disaster. “I currently have a gofundme set up to help with living expenses until I can get another part-time job. In the meantime, food is expensive and I also have to choose certain foods as a kidney dialysis patient. So it’s very difficult and weighs on me mentally and emotionally,” he said.

He currently relies on a paratransit service to travel to a kidney dialysis center three times a week, and still has to cover $65 monthly co-pays and the $135 a month medicare deductible taken from his disability benefits. He’s currently searching for another part-time job, because his disability benefits will be suspended entirely if he makes anything over the income limits of about $1,200 a month.

But the Trump administration is determined to target food stamps for cuts.

On 5 December, the United States Department of Agriculture announced the finalization of a new rule that will limit state waivers of federal work requirements for “able-bodied” individuals between the ages of 18 through 49 without dependants.

Currently without a waiver, these individuals cannot receive Snap benefits longer than three months in a three-year period. States have been able to grant waivers to these requirements in regions with high unemployment or insufficient available jobs. The rule is estimated to revoke Snap benefits from 668,000 individuals in the US.

The term “able-bodied” is vague, subject to interpretation of who fits into the requirements as determined by state agencies.

The rule is one of three being pushed by the Trump administration, which is also looking to enact capped income levels for Snap benefits eligibility to twice the poverty level, about $50,000 a year for a family of four. The rule would also prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food assistance benefits. Nearly 3 million Americans are expected to lose Snap benefits as a result of this rule.

A third rule would cut $4.5bn from the Snap program over five years, affecting one in five families receiving benefits.

The rules have faced scrutiny for revoking or reducing benefits for millions of Americans struggling with poverty, including eliminating access to free or reduced school lunch meals to 500,000 children.

But many disabled or sick Americans already struggle with obtaining Snap benefits or maintaining them under current requirements. Their situation, already tough, is now going to get worse.

They are people like Virgil Garwood, 37, of Woodville, Ohio, who was only receiving $50 a month in Snap benefits while fighting thyroid cancer. He receives social security disability insurance and is unable to work due to seizures, bone degradation, and the frequent surgeries his treatment requires.

But under the Trump administration, his benefits were reduced to just $15 a month, though his financial situation had not changed at all.

“My state requires Snap recipients to attend a class for proper nutrition, another class for budgeting, and a class that explained the program and how to apply for jobs. The entire time you were a recipient you were expected to be looking for employment and be able to provide proof,” said Garwood. “I let the program lapse because driving out to the classes to maintain benefits would cost way more than the $15 it’s bringing in.”

Jennifer Pracht of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has relied on Snap benefits to provider for herself and her 14-year-old daughter since she became disabled and unable to work due to spinal issues in 2012.

“For some reason this year, my amount was cut by $105 a month. Nothing has changed on my end for them to cut the amount. But, they did,” said Pracht. She’s concerned more unannounced cuts to her benefits are coming.

“I have no idea how I’m going to put food on the table for a whole month, let alone have that food be healthy. I won’t be able to have healthy food in this house because it’s so much more expensive.”

Several individuals who spoke to the Guardian about their experience with Snap benefits requested to remain anonymous or only go by their first name.

Lisa, 47, in Michigan began receiving Snap benefits in April 2018 while waiting on her social security disability insurance filing to be approved. In October 2018, she lost her Snap benefits due to work requirements.

“Food insecurity was a constant. I kept a running tally in my head of what food was in the kitchen and how many meals I had left, compared to how long before I might get money again.” said Lisa. “This isn’t a huge amount of money. This isn’t about people going out and living high on the hog on the taxpayer’s dime. This is about people scraping to get by, and that little bit of money a month is a godsend.”

A 40-year-old woman in South Berwick, Maine, currently receives $130 a month in Snap benefits and social security disability insurance as she suffers from Ehler’s Danlos syndrome, a vascular genetic condition, and several other disabilities.

Much of her disability payment goes toward rent, as she only recently moved into stable housing after struggling with homelessness for several years. She has no reliable transportation to a grocery store, and has dietary restrictions associated with her disability.

“I always have to set aside a food and transportation budget from my social security disability, which is $760 a month,” she said. “I don’t think $130 a month is enough for anyone to survive on and I get the maximum benefit, especially when they have multiple disabilities and can’t find work.”