How Should Food Stamps be Reformed?

The 2002 Farm Bill provided SNAP eligibility to most legal immigrants that: have lived in the U.S. for 5 years; or are receiving disability-related assistance or benefits; or have children under the age of 18. SNAP is statistically shown to improve the lives of immigrant families in America.

For example, the Mexican immigrant population comprises a major portion of the food stamp participants throughout America. The participation from this particular ethnicity has prompted the Mexican government to work with the United States Department of Agriculture to further increase participation in SNAP. The purpose of this alliance is to remove the language barrier preventing eligible families from finding the assistance. Several materials from the USDA have been translated into Spanish in order to help these immigrants. For example, the organization’s website now has a Spanish language tab where data useful to Spanish speakers can be downloaded. Also, printed materials in Spanish may be ordered off the web or obtained through the Mexican embassy or local consular offices. Around the same time of this initiative, November 2013, Obama was also doing all he could to help those illegally here in the United states in an effort to cater to the large Mexican voter population. Some of his promises while campaigning for his second run as President were lowering the eligibility requirements for SNAP.

Immigrant eligibility requirements for food stamps seem to be highly unfair and questionable. In order to be eligible for food stamps, immigrants must have immigration status that is included in the list of “qualified alien” statuses formed by Congress in the 1996 welfare reform statute. This means that the immigrant has to be either a lawful permanent resident (LPR), a humanitarian based entrant (ex: refugee, asylee, victim of trafficking), or a battered spouse or child qualified for adjustment under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Non-citizens that are granted parole for a period of a year or more are also considered “qualified aliens.”

Food stamps benefits are considered federal “needs based” assistance, meaning additional eligibility requirements must be imposed on certain immigrants even if they are considered to be included in the “qualified alien” category. One of the extra requirements is called The Five Year Bar. LPRs and spouses eligible for adjustment have a five year waiting period before they become eligible to receive food stamps. However, children under the age of 18 and those that receive disability benefits are not subject to the five year wait to receive food stamps benefits. This is unfair to immigrant families that have children, but consist of adults who may be subjected to the five year wait. Food stamps for the children may not be enough to sustain the whole household, therefore the government only helps a certain percentage of a household. Only children under 18 and disabled persons will be capable of claiming food stamps benefits, and that means the government knowingly will not supporting the other members in a household for at least five years because of this rule. This is not fair and is clearly unjust to people that contribute their earnings to the American government and rely on the benefits provided by the government of this country.

However, a recent USDA guidance on immigration eligibility requirements for food stamps asserts that benefit agencies are not allowed to ask about the immigration status of anyone who is not applying for benefits on his or her own behalf, but who is only applying for benefits on behalf of others in the household. Benefit agencies are restricted from denying benefits to an otherwise eligible household in the case if there is insufficient verification of their immigration status, and once a household member is considered ineligible, all inquiries and attempts at obtaining additional information about the household member must cease. This encourages benefit agencies to assure that qualified non-citizens applying for and receiving food stamps benefits will not be deterred from becoming lawful permanent residents and ultimately naturalized citizens. This guidance guarantees that immigrants will not be turned away from food stamps benefits because of their household members’ illegal status.

These difficulties in food snap policies must consider more than simply poverty and hunger. As mentioned, the implications of language, households, and  citizenship status play a large role as well. Food stamp legislation is hotly contested, especially in the contemporary discussion about immigration policy with a focus on legal and illegal immigrants.

In the history of food stamps, budget cuts to SNAP typically affect immigrants first. The stereotype is to believe foreigners move to the US and take advantage of the various public welfare programs available. In doing so, these immigrants apparently stifle economic growth and restrict their own ability to become independent of government support. However, a study by the NYC Office of Financial Empowerment, showed that immigrants would most typically go to family and friends, work more, go without something, or go into their savings when at a time of financial emergency. Only 4.3% of the survey group responded yes to applying for emergency public service. Therefore, those against revising food stamp policies for arguments based on stereotypes should reconsider the facts.


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