SNAP Recipient to Trump Administration: I am not a fraud.

By Diane Sullivan

In the hierarchy of human needs, perhaps none is more basic than access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food. Adequate nutrition provides the foundation for healthy bodies and minds of both children and adults. In a nation of agricultural abundance, it is almost inconceivable that anyone struggles to put food on the table. Yet, more than 38 million of us do, as demonstrated by our access to the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the United States’ first line of defense against hunger.

Largely, the debate in this country about poverty and her close cousins of hunger and homelessness takes place among those in power—elected officials, scholars, advocates, researchers, CEOs and their boards, etc. But rarely are those of us with lived experience in poverty invited to the table when policies that directly impact our lives are discussed, designed, and implemented. You see, in politics, if you’re not at the table, it’s likely you’re on the menu.

As such, when President Trump suggests that I, among 3 million other SNAP recipients, am fraudulently accessing benefits without a need, I am compelled to push back. I share my story so publicly not because it’s easy. I know how I will be judged. I share my story because when you seek to remove access to food from people struggling to survive, you should know who you are talking about. We are the real people who would be harmed by the administration’s “broad-based categorical eligibility” proposal that would remove the ability of individual states to apply a higher gross income test and waive the asset test for SNAP applicants. Further, I share my story because nobody else—even with the best of intentions—can tell it for me.

I live in Massachusetts, the state that ranks third most expensive for housing, second most expensive for child care, and the number one most expensive when it comes to food. This is precisely why my state, along with 42 others, apply broad-based categorical eligibility when considering who qualifies for SNAP benefits.

This is the so-called loophole the Trump Administration claims I am exploiting to get what equates to less than $4 per meal in SNAP assistance for my family. I work at a local market and consult with both non-profit and agriculture groups on how to better engage folks like me in their work. I seek to create a seat at the table for those of us adversely impacted by policies that make our food less accessible or more expensive. My income has fluctuated greatly over the past several years, and I’ve enrolled in the SNAP program during times of need.

I live with four of my children, two high school students and two recent high school graduates. Because two of my daughters are 18 and 20 years old, income from their part-time jobs is considered when determining eligibility, and our monthly SNAP allotment equates to 77 cents per meal per person in my household. While this is not a lot of money, it represents almost half of my very tight, monthly food budget. Indeed, after my monthly bills have been paid—or otherwise negotiated—and my SNAP benefits have run out, I still struggle sometimes to access affordable, nutritious food for my family.
Should the administration’s proposal be implemented, my entire family will lose SNAP benefits because our combined income is above 130% of the federal poverty level. Adding further complications, my two growing teenage sons will lose access to free school meals. My budget is not capable of absorbing the cost. Combined with the loss of SNAP benefits—even if my sons qualified for reduced rate meals at school—this represents a significant monthly loss for me when I’ve had no increase to my income. What, then, shall I do? Make more frequent visits to the local food pantry? Already, food pantries across the country are struggling to keep up with demand. Cutting access to the SNAP program to 3 million people—90,000 of us here in Massachusetts—will only exacerbate that problem. 

My family would not only lose SNAP benefits by eliminating the higher gross income test, but also perhaps by bringing back the SNAP asset test. In 2015, while I was a SNAP recipient I received an older model vehicle as a gift, valued at around $4,500 at the time. Depending on how my state treats vehicles, this could have disqualified me had the vehicle’s value exceeded the state’s asset limit for SNAP. I am so grateful for this vehicle because it has increased our quality of life by getting me to and from work, back and forth to the grocery store (allowing me to shop sales and in bulk) and getting my children to their school and work activities. But we can’t eat it.

If we are inclined to address food insecurity and hunger in this country, we must, at the very least, hold the line on SNAP. This is what Congress voted on, and the president agreed to in the bipartisan passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. I urge the administration to listen to the voices of those of us who would be impacted and to reconsider its proposal to eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility in our nation’s SNAP program.

Diane Sullivan is an anti-poverty and hunger advocate and a consultant with the Income and Work Supports team at CLASP. She is the co-lead of the Boston site of the national group, Witnesses to Hunger—a research and advocacy project of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities in Philadelphia.