War on Poor

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley (left), emphasized bipartisanship when he hosted Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville (center), and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on June 27 at a town hall meeting in Watsonville.

Policy advocate Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty had a question for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on June 27, at a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, in Watsonville. After pointing out that the Trump administration was proposing to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, to “able-bodied adults without dependents” – despite bipartisan support of the 2018 Farm Bill outlining such benefits – she asked if Purdue “had a sense” whether he would proceed.

“My intention is to pursue the changes,” Purdue said, even though the USDA was supposedly still reviewing public comments, many of which were highly critical of the cuts. “Our feeling is as we try to move people into self-sufficiency rather than government sufficiency – in this day of low unemployment – this is a great time to do that.”

On Aug. 12, that phrase “self-sufficiency” was used again by Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli in explaining from the White House why the Trump administration was implementing a change in the “public charge” rule, that would deny citizenship to legal immigrants because they either had used, or might use in the future, public benefits such as SNAP, known as CalFresh in California.

“It’s just bad policy from our administration, and cruel.”

The administration had already announced on July 23 that it intends to cut broad-based eligibility of families for SNAP and subsidized school lunches if they earn more than federal poverty level guidelines or are considered to have too many assets. Advocates say the rule will disproportionately impact families in areas like Monterey County, where housing costs are high, and will disincentivize people from achieving the self-sufficiency the administration claims it wants to encourage.

“It’s just bad policy from our administration, and cruel from a perspective of families with children,” Bartholow says.

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Estimates of how many Californians would lose CalFresh benefits under the July 23 proposal run between 120,000-250,000 households, with another potential 500,000 children losing school meals. Bartholow says up to 700,000 adults could lose CalFresh benefits under the proposed able-bodied rule, which would limit how long such adults could receive CalFresh within a three-year period. She expects an announcement soon for able-bodied adults; public comment continues regarding proposed cuts for families, with a decision expected this fall.

The public charge rule impacting immigrants goes into effect Oct. 15, but California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he will challenge it in court. Thousands of families are estimated to have already self-selected out of benefits soon after the proposal was announced last October out of fear of deportation or losing out on citizenship in the future, Bartholow says.

Less than a month after Panetta shared a stage with Purdue in Watsonville, he authored a letter signed by other Democrats in the California congressional delegation protesting the elimination of broad-based eligibility and accusing the administration of attempting to circumvent the Farm Bill.

“Without the asset test, low-income working families in California are able to save money and move towards self-sufficiency without worrying that they will lose their SNAP eligibility,” he wrote.

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