As the old adage goes, laws are like sausages: You should never watch them being made. But while it may be uncomfortable, it’s important to remember that laws affect real people.
Real people like Marissa, a 19-year-old working mother who hopes to graduate from Austin Community College next year with an associate’s degree in surgical technology.
Real people like Romulo, a 23-year-old who left the foster care system in San Antonio without any paperwork proving his identity. Without a birth certificate and Social Security card, he is bouncing among temporary construction jobs until he can straighten out his papers.
Real people like Joseph, a 32-year-old who recently concluded a prison sentence and is having difficulty getting potential employers in Lubbock to overlook that fact. Joseph is once again responsible for his children, both financially and as a father figure. “I can’t make any more mistakes,” he says. “I have to be the example for them.”
These are our fellow Texans. We should care about what happens to them and pay attention to the laws that that might hurt them.
Although they are very different, these three Texans share one thing in common: They participate in SNAP, the program formerly known as Food Stamps that is the cornerstone of our nation’s response to hunger. Each of their lives could get harder as a result of proposals circulating in Congress and in opinion articles like this one.
These proposals are driven by the belief that, in America, if you can work, you should. We can all agree on this point. This founding Puritan work ethic, combined with a general history of prosperity and productivity, is deeply embedded in our national identity.
Nothing about SNAP undermines this belief. Although SNAP mostly helps children, seniors and the disabled — populations that we do not expect to work — it also offers a bridge over hard times for people who can work. Among the SNAP households that include working-age, able-bodied adults, half are already working, and more than 80 percent were employed in the months leading up to their participation or will be employed in the months to come.
Some unemployed workers need help getting back into the workforce; others don’t. But instead of strengthening SNAP’s role in helping those who struggle to find work, we are engaged in a public debate about whether those who are struggling are struggling hard enough.
These proposals could force states to adopt ineffective, arbitrary time limits on how long it can take to find work, or sanctions that cut off assistance — sometimes to all family members — when an adult fails to spend enough time in a supervised job search. One proposal would raise the age of required participation to 65, forcing more baby boomers who have recently lost jobs into a broken system. Another would make it more difficult for states and localities to grant flexibility to participants during hard times when jobs are scarce.
Instead of tackling the need for effective job-training programs, or services to remove barriers to employment, we are focused on how swift and hard a kick to deliver to people like Joseph, whose conviction already prevents him from convincing most employers to hire him.
This “work-first” approach already doesn’t serve Texans well. Yet proponents of this model often ignore how these incentives really function, and instead aim to cast work supports like SNAP and Medicaid as “welfare” programs requiring an ever-greater number of sticks and fewer carrots. This indifferent approach forces many who need help off the program, while allowing the state to falsely claim success for those who remain.
The truth is that Marissa, Romulo and Joseph each face complicated barriers to sustainable employment. Life on the edges of our economy is full of insecurity and unappealing trade-offs. Helping SNAP participants to build economic security takes proper screening, targeted services and long-term commitment. It’s complicated, expensive work not given to cookie-cutter solutions.
What’s not complicated is their need to feed themselves and their families.
Taking basic services away from Texans who are working towards better lives isn’t a responsible way to deal with their economic problems, or our nation’s. Work requires fuel, and hunger never helped anyone find a job.
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