Recently, while summarizing the research that I have completed over the past few months examining gaps in anti-poverty programsa colleague asked me why the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is block grant for some U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and American Samoa. At the time, I didn’t have an answer other than, well, racism—to which there is truth. Race-based tropes, largely targeted at Black women, have historically been the main driver behind the stigma and false sense of scarcity that promotes cuts to public benefit programs.  

picture of the U.S. Capitol building

However, I began to think more deeply about the common threads between various programs and problems among all of them, it became increasingly clear 

that racism produced a lack of trust in people with low incomes. This lack of trust has dug its tendrils into almost every facet of the economy and subsequently created barriers that households already struggling to exist in an unjust economic system must navigate to ensure that they have the basic supports to keep their families healthy and well.  

Here are just a few examples of how lack of trust manifests itself: 

  • Racism and xenophobia manifest in public benefit programs through requirements that claim to protect program integrity—reducing possible fraud, misuse, waste. In realityprogram integrity efforts misconstrue structural inequities that create the need for anti-poverty programs (e.g., racism and sexism in employment, women’s disproportionate caregiving dutiesresidential segregation, lack of paid family and medical leave) and places the blame on individuals, enhancing the policing of families with low incomes. Take the onerous application and verification processes that eligible households must go through to receive public benefits. Depending on the state, applications for programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) could be 20 pages or more, and documents are required at the time of application to prove identity, residency, income, and resources. If a household wants to deduct other expenses such as childcare and utility costs to maximize their benefit allotments, additional documents are needed. For SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), many households must prove that they do not have assets in savings that exceed a certain limitoften preventing families from having a cushion in periods of economic downturn. 
  • Lack of trust also strips recipients of autonomy over their food choices. Commodity programs such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations largely rely on pre-packaged boxes to provide seniors and Indigenous people with nutrition assistance, and do not provide room for individuals to tailor food to special diets or traditional eating patterns. Historically, most SNAP recipients are prohibited from using benefits to purchase hot foods and online groceriesHowever, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how unnecessarily restrictive these rules are, causing the USDA to quickly pivot to meet the demand 
  • There are also restrictions that prevent certain groups from participating in federal benefit programs, regardless of income eligibility. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) designated immigrants as either “qualified” or “non-qualified” , rendering “non-qualified” immigrants ineligible for most federal benefits and imposing a five-year waiting period for adult “qualified” immigrants. PRWORA also instituted a punitive ban on SNAP for individuals formerly convicted of a drug felonyand it’s no coincidence that 33 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses are Black. While only South Carolina and Guam still have a lifetime SNAP ban for people with felony drug convictions, modified approaches to eligibility such as drug testing or participation in treatment programs still pose financial barriers for people already facing impediments to employment 

The persistent lack of trust creates a false dichotomy between the “deserving” and “underserving” poor, ultimately creating an inefficient system for anyone seeking federal support. As we move toward into recovery from COVID-19, it is critically important to abolish the culture that continually questions and penalizes families with low incomes, and instead listen to and value the voices of affected communities for program design and implementation

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