The Racialization of SNAP Policy

"To pinpoint the genesis of how SNAP and its various predecessors--food stamps, welfare--became a disparaging association with Black women and the urban poor, you’d probably have to return to the laws that shaped America as a British colony. These laws viewed the poor as “inherently unworthy,” and engrained in policy and practice a belief that poverty was a “personal choice,” not a result of misfortune, systemic inequality, classicism or even racism."

I had been told by another Black mother to go to the Dekalb Job Center office right before they opened. That way, you avoid the crowds and perhaps could mitigate the bad attitudes of the Human Resource Administration (HRA) workers. For the second time, but not the last, I was applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but now I also needed child care assistance so that I could start the process of going back to work a few months after I had my son. I thought I could pick the needed services, but was quickly and rudely told I’d have to apply for the slew of government assistance programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and this was not the office to do so. I was used to this office in Brooklyn, familiar with the process, the type of surliness of the case workers to expect, the route to get there from my home. I didn’t want to relearn a new place where the dehumanization might be harder to tolerate, the bathrooms in worse conditions, the wait times inordinately longer than the ones I had found ways to occupy. 

I wrote down the address of the new office and tearfully took the bus to the other location. To my surprise, it was a newer building with staff that were less begrudging with their service. I suspected that the newer building and improved work environment might have something to do with it, but was quickly returned to the rough, demoralizing one-on-one interactions with the case workers. Mr. Brown scolded me, unprovoked, that if we gave you money you had to work. The security staff would often harass and cat call me as I was forced to pass by them to leave. One worker had intentionally closed my case because I didn’t bring a mail receipt to prove I had mailed in the recertification by the due date, despite the fact that it was already received. Reapplying meant taking time from work to go to the many mandatory appointments–missing one meant you’d have to restart the process.

Years later in 2018, I read the story of Jasmine Headley (I couldn’t watch the video) a Black mother who sat in the middle of the floor of the same job center I first went to, after waiting hours to query the loss of her child care assistance and was assaulted as she held her one year old. I knew exactly the feelings that led to her protest. I had seen women escorted out the building, yelling and cursing behind them. They were seen as disruptive, but it was all I could do some days to not join them. 


Food Stamps Politicized

To pinpoint the genesis of how SNAP and its various predecessors–food stamps, welfare–became a disparaging association with Black women and the urban poor, you’d probably have to return to the laws that shaped America as a British colony. As tedious as that might be, that was the inception of the idea of the poor, what society owes them, and more importantly, what is the government’s responsibility to them. 

These laws viewed the poor as “inherently unworthy,” and engrained in policy and practice a belief that poverty was a “personal choice,” not a result of misfortune, systemic inequality, classicism or even racism. The philosophy of government aid was always strictly political and with the primary intent of maintaining social order, which was accomplished by giving the poor just enough that they don’t rebel, but not too much that they stay dependent.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

In the 1930’s, when the government could no longer ignore the rapidly increasing number of unemployed, hungry Americans, and there was a farming surplus that the masses couldn’t afford, they matched the excess with the need. The USDA gave blue stamps worth 50 cents for every $1 orange stamp bought. With the blue stamp, participants could buy surplus goods like fruits, beans, and dairy. From 1939-1943, 4 million people benefitted from the early food stamps program, but mostly, the biggest benefactors of the program were the farmers. By 1943, there was a decline in both unemployment and the surplus. 

The program was not revived again until 1961 when President John F. Kennedy started pilots in 22 states. The politicization of SNAP’s predecessors and its current iteration was entrenched in its location in the Farm Bill. Through logrolling, urban Democrats would support legislation that would help large scale agricultural producers (wheat, cotton) and rural Democrats would support food stamps funding–exclusively seen as a benefit to only urban communities. Republicans were not supportive of either side. The Food Stamps Act of 1964 didn’t have the surplus commodity requirement from before, and could only be used at qualified grocery stores–changing the main beneficiaries from farmers to retailers. 


Welfare Queens and the Undeserving Poor

As the program grew, so did the restrictions, eligibility standards, and work requirements. President Reagan launched and sustained his racist campaign that centralized “The Welfare Queen,” which then added fraud protection to the concerns of legislators. The woman central to this caricature was a biracial woman named Linda Taylor. This complicated, possibly mentally ill woman, is an accepted piece of American lore, that consciously and unconsciously drives anti-poor legislation to this day. Reagan is as closely tied to this stereotype as he championed the condemnation of this “woman from Chicago who, he said used 80 names, 30 addresses, and 15 phone numbers to collect benefits that earned her $150,000 a year.” 

The dog-whistle politics that Reagan engaged in may be obvious to us now, but the origins and history of the woman behind the trope is still not well known. In many ways, Linda Taylor was a poster child for the social determinants of health that lead to poverty. She had her first child at 14, was kicked out an all white school in Alabama and didn’t make it pass the second grade, and generally had to lie about her racial background because of miscegenation laws. Born to sharecroppers in segregated Alabama in 1926, her family life was impoverished and unstable.Though the crime she is known for was welfare fraud (a crime she was indicted for, but not convicted) the often quoted six figure sum is several thousand behind the $8,900 she is said to have pilfered. 

Yet the effects of her misdeeds have enshrined the idea that there is consistent fraud, wanton waste, and a general aversion to work that the urban poor, but specifically Black women are guilty of, in the usage of public assistance. The “poor” in the English poor laws, became almost synonymous with being Black in the American racial imaginary. 


SNAP Today

When President Trump gave the state of the union in early February, he secured himself from critiques about ignoring Black people during Black History Month by reinforcing what he believes, and what generations of racist ideology had cemented, that the most important aspects of Black and African American life are SNAP and unemployment. He boasted that 7 million people are off of “food stamps,” and 10 million off of “welfare” and although there is a downward trend in enrollment since 2010, his assertion belied a more insidious truth. 

In December of last year, the Trump administration implemented a measure to strengthen work requirements for “able-bodied” adults without children, effectively removing 700,000 from accessing food through SNAP. The question of the necessity of this measure is compounded by his previous assertion that enrollment is reducing. Increasing work requirements all but ensures a reduction in the usage of benefits and for the one third of the “able-bodied” adults, reduced access to food and a heavier reliance on emergency food programs. 

Proposed categorical eligibility revisions and the public charge rule rooted in fear of fraud and anti-immigrant sentiment respectfully, have joined the work-requirements all under the umbrella of carefully proliferated racist tropes. Sonny Perdue, the USDA secretary, echoed the un-American nature of reliance on public assistance, saying, “government dependency has never been the American dream.” 

Government assistance, though flawed in its inception and execution, is an invaluable response to poverty. SNAP has been credited for reducing poverty and food insecurity. In 2017, 3.4 million people were moved from the brink of poverty with SNAP. However we are yet to reckon with the classist and racist motivations that create legislation, and have therefore not been able to address how decisions made about these programs have had an inequitable effect on Black, Latinx, and other communities of color. 

In particular, the use of fraud as a reason for more stringent rules for SNAP has been proven to be inadequate. The umbrella of fraud detection includes errors made by both SNAP administrators and recipients alike. According to testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,”The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors that do occur result from mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers, not dishonesty or fraud by recipients. Additionally, fraud protections are generally robust and mainly spike when there are significant cuts to SNAP. In 2016, only 0.9% of the total amount of SNAP dollars was identified as taken fraudulently. 

Change is happening in a slow and often isolated way. In New York City,  a package of bills were introduced after the Jasmine Headley incident aimed to address customer experience in HRA buildings. A report by the Urban Justice Center surveyed HRA clients about their experience throughout the application process and found that a third of the respondents experienced rude and hostile communication from case workers. The report identified some recommendations that address wait times, environment, and training workers with trauma informed care. Recertification can now be done online to help reduce the number of case closing and denials.

On a Federal level, governors and legislators alike have pushed back on changing the Categorical Eligibility rule and public charge. Another report by Bread for the World Institute specifically outlined how federal nutrition programs can address racial inequity (go here to read the full report):

  • Put the needs of communities of color at the center
  • Expand inclusivity
  • Implement equity-centered approaches to make it easier to receive support
  • Increase support for and accountability of program staff
  • Create a mechanism that allows recipients, particularly recipients of color, to participate in program design, implementation, and evaluation
  • Strengthen the collection and disaggregation of data 

Access NYC was created in 2018 to centralize the application process for benefits, recertify, and generally streamline the process. If it were available when I was in need of benefits, there would be no need to reapply for everything after one angry caseworker closed my case. 

While changes like these are welcome, it sometimes amounts to little too late when the effects of a system rooted in stereotypes and anti-Blackness isn’t viewed in that particular framework. We are yet to contend with the breadth of influence the “welfare queen” and other anti-Black stereotypes have shaped and molded how legislators and the communities they serve view benefits programs. A true reckoning with this history, an informed study of how that affects both the policy-making and the attitudes of those charged with shepherding the process would work to humanize the current system and return dignity to those having to seek assistance.


Rae Gomes