The new year and the new decade have brought us many new challenges. Some of them, including possible war with Iran or at the least, continuing turmoil in the Middle East are alarming. Others, including the seemingly too warm winter and a worry about future snowpack, water and fire — for us in Wallowa County the three horsemen of climate change — are merely daunting. And some, like the growing number of people who gleefully plunge into frigid water to start off the new year, just leave us shaking our heads.
Among the concerning economic and political decisions that we, as a community, face this year is a new federal rule that limits benefits in SNAP: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program supports the purchase of nutritional foods to about 14.3 million food-insecure households nationally. In Wallowa County, it supports more than 900 households: more than 13 percent of county residents.
The new Trump administration rule will require able-bodied SNAP recipients to work at a job for a minimum of 20 hours per week, or be dropped from the program. Nationally, this will supposedly save about S8 billion over 5 years ($1.6 billion per year). That seems like real money. And requiring able-bodied people to hold a job and contribute to the economy also seems like a positive thing. As Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand.”
But just because you are able-bodied doesn’t mean that there is a year-round job waiting for you. Wallowa County is a good example. Many other rural communities have similar economies. As full-time year-round work diminished with the decline of timber, seasonal jobs in recreation and visitor services increased. The result is a seasonal seesaw of jobs and unemployment, especially for those in relatively unskilled positions.
In Wallowa County, our summer unemployment rate is around 4%. In winter it’s more like 14%. For those who rely upon seasonal work to survive, whether that be in restaurants, lodging, recreation, agriculture, seasonal parks or USFS work, there is simply no way to meet the year-round requirement of a minimum 20 hour work week. Nor is there enough latitude in seasonal income that is usually at minimum wage to save enough to make it through the winter without a little help. Although Wallowa County and other rural counties do have rules and waivers in place to provide seasonal workers with assistance, we may still have more than 170 people here who are denied SNAP assistance.
There is another less obvious problem related to the loss of SNAP food stamps: health—and our economy here. The hospital and Winding Waters Community Health Care clinic in Wallowa County have made, and kept, the extraordinary vow that no one should be denied health care, even if they can’t pay for it. This pledge has put financial and spatial strain on both. Removing SNAP support from those who are seasonally unemployed will only increase their burden.
A thorough 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that receiving SNAP benefits so that a family was fed well associated with a reduction in annual health care spending of about $1,400 per person among low-income adults. Another study found that each additional $10 of monthly SNAP benefits was linked with a lower risk of hospitalization for Maryland residents enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid. In Massachusetts, an increase in SNAP benefits slowed the increase in Medicaid hospitalization costs.
If we do the simple math, and assume that ONLY the 170 people who may lose SNAP benefits are effected, rather than their entire families, that’s likely a minimum of an additional $238,000 in medical costs that we are asking our medical providers to shoulder. And that’s not counting the lower hospitalization risks that come along with SNAP and eating regularly.
We can hope that the waivers provided by the department of Human Services actually will allow SNAP benefits to continue for able-bodied seasonal workers. If not, we are hardly saving anything. Not even our neighbors.