Tom Beck, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey (JFS), was angered by the Trump administration’s recent announcement of restrictions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cuts will affect 12,000 N.J. residents, around 700,000 Americans, this spring.
“This has me very upset,” Beck told NJJN in a telephone interview. “This is people’s lives.” JFS aids 175 families of all faiths who are SNAP recipients and supplies another 160 with emergency food. SNAP, also known as food stamps, provides low-income individuals with a monthly allotment to purchase food.
On Dec. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a tightening of eligibility for SNAP recipients who are able-bodied adults between 18-49 and without dependents. These individuals will lose their SNAP benefits if they are not spending 20 hours per week working or in a work-training program starting April 1, 2020.
“I’m not sure many who are underprivileged and suffer from food insecurity will be able to find employment,” said Beck. “One of their main safety nets will be gone.”
The income limit for a single N.J. resident affected by the new rules is $23,107. The average monthly SNAP benefit for the Garden State is $130, according to a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“This really keeps a lot of people going,” said Beck. “It helps, but it’s really not much, especially if one is looking for kosher food.”
The restrictions come at a time of low unemployment and a sharp increase in the number of SNAP recipients over two decades. In 2000 the unemployment rate was 4 percent and 17 million individuals received SNAP benefits. In 2019, 36 million receive SNAP and the unemployment rate has decreased to 3.6 percent, according to a USDA press release announcing the changes.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “We have more job openings than people to fill them.”
Beck, who participated a few years ago in a project living for a week on a food budget equivalent to what SNAP recipients receive, questioned the feasibility of the employment requirement.
“I was starved,” he said. “If you are hungry, how can you work, be educated? I was eating spaghetti and tuna that was on sale. I went to Trader Joe’s in the morning and afternoon to get free food. By day two I couldn’t exercise. How can you go to work when you are hungry? And they want to take this away?”
He said his agency can’t replace what SNAP provides, though the JFS food pantry provides clients with 20-22 items of food on a monthly basis, including cereal, rice, pasta, canned goods, fruits and vegetables, and more.
“We will do everything we can to help people with their SNAP benefits,” he said.
N.J. Governor Phil Murphy also expressed his dismay at the new rules for SNAP eligibility. “President [Donald] Trump continues to attack our residents in need, and this new rule change will impact thousands of New Jerseyans who are struggling to make ends meet,” he said in a statement earlier this month. “In New Jersey, we will do everything we can in order to fight back against the inhumane and cruel policies coming from the Trump Administration. We cannot stand by while our residents go hungry and will explore all possible paths forward.”
Jewish agencies in the state are preparing for a possible uptick in clients seeking food assistance, as well as job training and other career services.
Paul Freedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County, told NJJN his agency’s First Step Food Pantry in Asbury Park is prepared to fill some of the gaps if local residents lose their SNAP benefits. First Step provides food packages to 150 families each month, offering enough food for six-eight meals for a family of four.
“Our goal is to provide the healthiest and most sustainable food possible for the less fortunate in the community,” he said.
Freedman also said his agency can increase the number of clients served by 25 percent. “We are very fortunate with the support we have that produces the resources we have.”
The rule change “is an attack on people who fall through the cracks,” Jerry Starr told NJJN. Starr is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties. He’s anticipating an increase in participants in his agency’s career services programs, which include counseling and a job seekers’ group.
“We will look at any work programs to help people affected with their benefits,” he said.
Joel Schneider, an intake coordinator at Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County, said his agency is ready to help local SNAP recipients satisfy the 20-hour weekly work requirement through its vocational training programs at the Joel Gensler Career Center. The center also offers aid to job seekers, including interview training, a computer lab and media center, and employment counseling.
“We’re confident we have a lot of opportunities for those who may need them,” said Schneider. “Our career services are free and open to the general public.”
In a prepared statement, Abby J. Liebman, CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, sharply criticized the Trump administration.
“USDA’s rule change does nothing to encourage ‘self-sufficiency’ and instead provides a blistering reminder of what can only be described as a deliberately pernicious strategy to undercut already marginalized restrictions to critically needed food.”