Flickr / USDA
Meanwhile, food insecurity among new immigrant families has nearly doubled in the last decade.

Access Issues Justice Policy

It’s no secret that the Trump administration has long wanted to minimize the number of people who use food stamps. It has supported legislation that would impose strict work requirements on people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Internal emails from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in April suggested that the agency may allow states to drug-test food aid applicants. And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last month published rules that say food stamp use will be a “heavily” weighted factor when considering applications for green cards.

That last rule hasn’t even gone into effect yet. But new research shows it might not matter. Preliminary data from a survey of more than 35,000 mothers of young children indicate a nearly 10 percent drop in SNAP enrollment among immigrant families who are eligible.

The findings, presented Monday at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting, found that immigrant mothers’ participation in SNAP steadily increased from 2007 to 2017. Then, in the first half of 2018, the numbers suddenly dropped—by a lot. In 2017, 43 percent of eligible families who had been in the country for less than five years were participating in the program. By mid-2018, that figure had plummeted to 34.8 percent.

It seems fear is acting as potently as official policy might.
Allison Bovell-Ammon, lead researcher for the study and deputy director of policy strategy at Boston Medical Center’s Children’s HealthWatch, emphasized that SNAP eligibility rules didn’t change between 2017 and 2018, so the drop is likely due to families’ fear of potential repercussions for receiving food aid. “These findings demonstrate that rhetoric and the threat of policy changes, even before changes are enacted, may be causing families to forego nutrition assistance,” she said in a press release.

In April, Harvest Public Media reported that anti-hunger advocates had begun sharing anecdotal evidence that immigrants were dropping out of SNAP over fear of deportation. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for the program, but if they have dependents who were born in the U.S., their children can receive food stamps. Though an early leaked version of the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule hinted that dependents’ SNAP use would be considered in determining a family’s immigration status, the final published rule indicated that only adults’ SNAP participation would be factored in.

More than 3 million people have left the program since the president’s first full month in office.
As the year wore on, further indications that the current political climate might be affecting immigrant use of food benefits began to trickle in. Politico reported in September that agencies in 18 states have seen as much as a 20 percent drop in enrollment for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides food assistance to new mothers. Food banks also reported their clients’ confusion and concern about registering for SNAP use.

Still, Bovell-Ammon’s work is by far the most concrete research to date that indicates the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric is having a real impact on immigrants’ SNAP usage. Though no concrete rules linking the two have been implemented, it seems fear is acting as potently as official policy might: people are leaving the program in droves.

On Monday, conservative news outlet Breitbart reported what it surely considered to be Trump-related good news—not related, certainly, to the recent spate of work requirements: Nationwide SNAP enrollment is at its lowest in nearly a decade. More than 3 million people have left the program since the president’s first full month in office. Meanwhile, according to the Boston Medical Center research, food insecurity among immigrant families who have been in the country for less than five years has risen from 9.9 percent in 2007 to 17.8 percent today.

H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown is a staff writer for The New Food Economy focusing on food policy and the environment. Her reporting has won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the New York Press Club. She is based in Brooklyn. She can be reached via email at claire.brown@newfoodeconomy.org or on Twitter at @hclaire_brown.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get a weekly dish of features, commentary and insight from the food movement’s front lines.