By Elizabeth Bowen
Food and shelter are essential for human life. Yet millions of Americans face both food insecurity and housing insecurity. The Trump administration's proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) will make homeless Americans’ daily struggle for survival even worse.
The 2019 federal budget proposal includes a $17.2 billion cut to SNAP and a dramatic restructuring of the program, under which most recipients would receive about half of their benefits in the form of “America’s Harvest Box,” – a package of commodities like pasta, beans and peanut butter.
While this proposal can be criticized on grounds ranging from delivery logistics to the lack of fresh produce, rarely considered is the impact it would have on one of the most vulnerable groups of SNAP recipients – people experiencing homelessness.
My research on homelessness and food insecurity, conducted in Buffalo and Chicago, examines the daily struggle of getting adequate healthy food for this population. In one of my studies, we found that three out of four homeless/unstably housed participants were food insecure. People described skipping meals, going to bed hungry and sometimes going a whole day without eating.
It’s easy to think that food pantries and soup kitchens are the solution. While these do serve as a stop-gap, barriers including limited hours and transportation make it difficult for people to get all of their food from such programs. A person may be forced to choose between going to a doctor’s appointment and getting to the soup kitchen in time for lunch. In contrast, SNAP enables people to purchase food when, where and how they want it. Forcing people whose lives are highly mobile and who typically have no place to prepare or store food to relinquish the flexibility of their SNAP benefits for a box of canned meat and other packaged foods makes no sense.
The restructuring of SNAP would be especially dire for homeless youth and young adults, who often distrust shelters and other service institutions. A recent, groundbreaking national study found that 1 in 10 Americans age 18 to 25 have experienced homelessness in the past year. SNAP provides vital assistance for these young adults, who usually no longer qualify for free school breakfast or lunch but whose young bodies and brains still need extra calories and nutrients.
The proposed changes to SNAP come on the heels of the first rise in the total number of homeless people in the United States since the Great Recession, and in the midst of an ongoing affordable housing crisis. At a time when so many Americans are struggling with homelessness and housing security, we must not create another barrier to the ever-pressing challenge of where people will find their next meal.
Elizabeth Bowen is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo.