a new battle

Veterans Vulnerable as Trump Threatens Food Aid for 70,000 New Yorkers

A bodega in Chinatown advertises accepting SNAP benefits, Dec. 5, 2019.
A bodega in Chinatown advertises accepting SNAP benefits, Dec. 5, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A Trump administration rule to toughen work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits could deal an especially sharp blow to New York veterans seeking food stamps, anti-hunger experts and veterans’ groups predict.

A new rule finalized by the United States Department of Agriculture last week will require employment for “able-bodied adults” between 18 and 49 who don’t claim dependents — a demographic that describes many veterans attempting to re-enter civilian life.

“Right now, we have an increase of the amount of veterans, reservists and National Guard members that are dying by suicide. This is not the time to take one of the few benefits that was widely utilized by the veteran community away from them,” said James Fitzgerald, deputy director of the NYC Veterans Alliance.

The USDA predicted the rule would cut nearly 700,000 people from SNAP benefits nationwide. New York City officials estimate that one in 10 of those — about 70,000 people — live in the five boroughs.

The SNAP slashing scheduled to take effect April 1 also could hit The Bronx, Upper Manhattan and southeast Queens particularly hard, providers of food aid to the needy said. That’s because the new rule would cancel federal waivers exempting recipients from work mandates in those areas.

“SNAP helps people. It helps lift people out of poverty and it gives them a certain stability in their lives that can help them,” said Judy Secon, senior director of programs and operations for the New York Common Pantry, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing hunger.

“So without that, it’s very difficult to get by,” she added. “And so if they’re in an area where unemployment is historically high and they’re in a group that historically has problems getting positions, it’s going to hurt them even more.”

City Vows to ‘Fight Back’

Able-bodied adults without dependents currently are limited to receiving SNAP benefits for three months during a three-year period, unless they work at least 20 hours a week. But many states, including New York, have waived that requirement in areas that “lack sufficient jobs” or have an unemployment rate above 10%.

Such waivers exist for The Bronx, and parts of Upper Manhattan and Southeast Queens.

City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks vowed New York would "fight back" against the Trump administration plan.
City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks vowed New York would “fight back” against the Trump administration plan. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

The new rule, which the Trump administration says would save the federal government $5.5 billion over five years, will make the waivers harder to get by requiring that areas have an average 6% unemployment rate over a two-year period.

The Bronx had an unemployment rate of 5.6% in October, above the state average, according to state Department of Labor data, and after a years-long decline has fluctuated around 6% for the past two years.

City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said in a statement that the city would “use every tool at our disposal to fight back so that New Yorkers have the resources they need to make ends meet, including putting essential food on the table.”

Hurting Vets

Because the new rule would affect adults who don’t care for children or elderly relatives, veterans could be disproportionately hit by the benefit cuts, anti-hunger advocates said.

Fitzgerald noted that veterans often need retraining to find civilian employment after their military service.

“Taking into account some of the barriers that are already stopping our servicemen and women from getting the benefits and services — like adequate employment, housing, things of that nature — we have to take into account are we making it easier or harder for our veterans to access these benefits?” Fitzgerald said.

Those who receive disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are exempt from work requirements. But waiting for the VA to process a case and assign disability compensation can take months or even years, Fitzgerald said, recalling his own experience after being injured in Afghanistan in 2010.

Burden on Food Pantries

Cutting SNAP benefits could increase the reliance on food pantries and food banks, which would shoulder the “brunt force” of the fallout, Fitzgerald said.

Charity organizations shouldn’t “take the place of strong public-sector programs” said Gregory Silverman, executive director of the nonprofit West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

“It would be much better if all these people could actually be able to go to the grocery store,” Silverman said. “Why do I have to set up a parallel structure because the safety net in this city and this country is completely lacking? Each time we make one of these cuts, it’s kind of like cutting another loop in the safety net to make it fray more.”

Food pantries operators already have found themselves responding to a surge in demand from undocumented immigrants as some unenroll from government benefits over concerns that using them could hurt their prospects for permanent legal status, Silverman added.

Last November, 192 new households sought the West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s services, he said. That figure has risen to 247 this November, which means more fundraising and staff getting “stretched thinner,” Silverman said.

“What we are seeking to do is to build self-sufficiency in people and help them to not really need our services anymore — to be able to get themselves into a place where they don’t have to rely on us,” said Secon. “But we’re here as the safety net and SNAP is all part of that, so cutting it is shortsighted.”

Are you an “able-bodied adult” between 18 and 49 — without dependents — who receives SNAP benefits? Are you a veteran who fits the above description? Are worried about losing your benefits? We want to hear from you. Email THE CITY’s Josefa Velasquez: JVelasquez@TheCity.NYC

CORRECTION (Dec. 10, 2019, 12:21 p.m.): An earlier version of this story stated the number of new households that sought the West Side Campaign Against Hunger’s services as per year, but the numbers are for the month of November.

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