Guest Opinion: Owning a used car shouldn't strip me of the food stamps that I need to survive

The Trump administration's proposed rule would erode what little stability that poor and disabled people have.

Jamison Hill

I grew up on food stamps. As a child of the '90s, some of my earliest memories are of my family getting food vouchers in the mail each month, the colorful slips of paper coming in different denominations and featuring historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, just like real money. We stopped needing food assistance by the time I got to middle school. I was never ashamed of how my mother (on her own, employed full-time, with limited child care) managed to raise me and my sister, using the help of government programs. But with a college degree, and on my way to a thriving career, I never expected to need it again.

Then I got sick. I contracted myalgic encephalomyelitis, a debilitating chronic illness that left me too weak and in too much pain to report to a conventional job. Working from home for 45 hours a week as an editorial assistant, I earned $2,000 a month after taxes - barely enough to pay my rent and bills each month. Reluctantly, I signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and got approved for nearly $200 a month in food assistance. Since then, my condition has worsened. My inability to walk or speak above a whisper makes it impossible for me to work. I rely on welfare programs to survive. The only question is: Will the government let me?

Recently, the Trump administration finalized a rule to limit who can receive food assistance. It imposes new work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents, and will remove almost 700,000 people from the federal food-stamp program. "The changes reflect the belief that more Americans can enter and reenter the workforce," a government official told reporters, "so they can know the dignity of work."

They have also suggested a new rule: rejecting households with more than $2,250 in assets, or, for households with a disabled adult, more than $3,500 in assets, according to the New York Times. Lawmakers have justified this change by claiming that it closes a loophole allowing people of high net worth who have a low income - wealthy retirees, for example - to receive assistance. But in effect, the change will mean any disabled person who owns a used car of even modest value would be ineligible for food assistance. In total, the administration's restrictions would remove benefits from 3 million people, and free or discounted school meals from 1 million children.

Under this new rule, I could be ineligible for food stamps. Between what little cash I have on hand and other modest assets such as my smartphone and electric wheelchair, I would almost certainly cross over the $3,500 threshold. Being ineligible for food stamps would force me to use most of my monthly disability disbursement to buy groceries. It might even force me to sell the very same assets that rendered me ineligible for food stamps in the first place.


I'm one medical bill away from being unable to cover rent or utilities. Putting a $3,500 cap on my assets prevents me from building a financial foundation to protect me from unexpected expenses, much less improve my quality of life. That's another harsh reality of the proposal: It makes it much easier for households to fall off what's called the "benefit cliff," in which a small boost in their circumstances - like getting more work hours, or a slightly higher hourly wage - causes them to lose government assistance, leaving them worse off than before. The rule has a deep irony: In the name of encouraging self-sufficiency in people on food stamps, it undercuts what little stability we have.

The war on the social safety net, and those who need it, is not new. When I was growing up during Clinton-era welfare reform, it was waged with strict work requirements and time limits. It manifested in the rhetoric that cast recipients as shiftless, lazy and lacking "personal responsibility" - in the dirty looks that my mother got from grocery store clerks and fellow shoppers whenever she pulled out that booklet of brightly colored food vouchers.

Now it takes the form of some mythic loophole - the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of well-off people, sitting on property and big bank accounts, taking advantage of the welfare system. And soon, this logic may lead to a future in which millions of vulnerable people like me will have lighter food carts, and emptier stomachs.

Jamison Hill is an essayist. He’s writing a memoir about his battle with chronic illness.
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