The new federal food stamp regulations will exact a painful financial and emotional toll on New York’s Jewish community, where approximately 25 percent of Jews are already living below the federal poverty line and heavily reliant on the assistance program, said David Greenfield, executive of the Met Council for Jewish poverty.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration issued new rules reducing or cutting food stamps for 688,000 recipients, reversing the 2018 Congressional farm bill that reauthorized food stamps without the employment and income restrictions that the administration was seeking.
“We’re very concerned,” Greenfield told The Jewish Week about cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the food stamps are officially known. Already, a recent study found that “85,000 Jewish households in New York City suffer from ‘food insecurity, referring to running out of food, or money for food, before the next assistance cycle,” Greenfield said. “They literally don’t have food on their tables.”
“SNAP is supposed to be the main vehicle to address food insecurity, to allow someone to go out and buy food in a dignified way,” added Greenfield. He expects the Jewish poor to become increasingly reliant on Met Council’s 40 kosher food pantries, “but food pantries are not supposed to replace SNAP”; they are meant to be the safety net when someone’s SNAP allotment runs out. “The pantries are already operating at max capacity.”
On an average month, Met Council’s pantries serve between 57,000 and 62,000 people, said Greenfield, but that number spikes before holidays, such as Rosh HaShanah or Passover, when the pantries “distributed food to 181,000 people.”
Met Council, the largest Jewish communal safety net, signed up over 8,900 Jewish households in New York for SNAP last year, said Greenfield, who projected that as many as 37 percent of those households will see a reduction in benefits. “In places like New York City, where food is expensive, especially kosher food, SNAP doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.” The average monthly SNAP benefit, according to reports, is only $127.
Adults 18 to 49, without children, and without mental or physical impairments, are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or enrolled in a government-sponsored training program. Greenfield explained that this will hurt what he calls his “crisis clients,” unemployed Jews with a specialized expertise, perhaps with a master’s degree in a specific field. “A low unemployment rate means you can get a job in McDonald’s, but not necessarily in one’s field.”
He added, “a disproportionate amount of our clients are seniors, and they’ll be impacted as well.” Eligibility for benefits has an income ceiling, but one rule that will sting seniors concerns an elimination in deductions allowed for utilities, such as a phone or internet access. “This particular rule,” said Greenfield, “according to the [Department of Agriculture’s] own estimates, would cause 19 percent of senior households to lose at least a portion of their benefits, since their [recalculated] income will be higher,” without the utilities deduction.
Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group, said in a statement that the Trump administration “has cruelly and needlessly restricted access to the most basic of human needs for those who are among our nation’s most vulnerable. Hunger is not and has never been a meaningful incentive to find employment when employment is not there to be had.”
“The new SNAP rules announced yesterday by the Federal government will devastate low-income New Yorkers by denying them critical food benefits they rely on to feed their families,” UJA-Federation of New York, which administers programs to the needy, said in a statement.
“It is not acceptable that in New York State over 100,000 people could lose their SNAP benefits,” the statement said. “These changes demonstrate a total lack of regard for how low-income Americans cope with the realities of employment, poverty, and food insufficiency.”
Although the new regulations’ purpose is theoretically to reduce the numbers of SNAP recipients, that number has been swiftly declining anyway, before the new regulations. According to the Los Angeles Times, SNAP had 48 million recipients in 2013; this year, 36 million.
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The new rule is supported by conservative groups, which say it will reduce waste and fraud in the welfare system, and encourage able-bodied adults to enter the workforce.
“This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps … moving more able-bodied Americans to self-sufficiency,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week. Observers of Jewish poverty don’t believe that Jewish seniors or Met Council’s “crisis clients” have been trying to avoid “self-sufficiency.”
JTA contributed to this report.