By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
South Side Workers Center invited residents to a community forum to talk about coming Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts on Sunday, Jan. 12.
The South Side Workers Center is one of Flood’s Hall, 1515 E. 52nd Pl., projects that focuses on providing legal support for workers and tenants in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area and surrounding neighborhoods. On Sunday afternoon, around 10 people showed up to talk about how SNAP cuts will impact their lives and what collective action they should take to prevent it.
Starting on Jan.1, Cook County SNAP recipients who are between the ages of 18 and 49, able-bodies and without dependents will be limited to three months of benefits over three years unless they work, volunteer or participate in job training for at least 20 hours a week. According to a Chicago Tribune article, work requirements have been a part of federal law since the 1990s, the work rule have been waived in Cook County for years. However, the county must impose the rule now because the unemployment rate has dropped significantly in the county. Some residents have already received a letter from the Illinois Department of Human Services to notify them that they might lose their food stamps.
Aaron Benanav, a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, said he sees SNAP cuts as part of a long trend. Benanav researches and analyzes the history of unemployment and how governments in the United States and Europe have categorized and controlled various forms on unemployment.
“There’s been this tendency to make people work in order to receive any benefits,” he said.” A lot of the justification for goes back even further than the ‘90s. In fact, you can go back centuries with the idea that people who are able bodied should have to work and shouldn’t be able to receive any relief from the government.”
Benanav doesn’t buy that the labor market is a justification to cut benefits, especially since wages have been stagnant for decades. “Unemployment rates (are low) in the US but wages, which are supposed to be rising when the unemployment rate falls, are low. The rate of wage increases has been far below the norm, far below what should be required for wages to keep up with workers productivity growth. That’s kind of the expected relationship; that wages for workers would grow as fast as their productivity. That hasn’t happened in the U.S. for something like 50 years.”
Another speaker, Elena Gormley, complicated the justification for SNAP benefits even more by speaking to underemployment and low wages in white-collar professional jobs. Gormley is a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work who recently penned an op-ed article in Vox, that talks about how she will be impacted by the snap cuts.
“Prior to attending UIC, I was at a community college and I was working 15 hours a week in master’s program and then Kent County enacted these work requirements,” she said. “I would have to work 20 hours a week. And my problem was I was working 15. There was no chance I would get bumped up to 20. I was not going to be able to get hired for a second job at five hours a week.”
In order to be eligible for SNAP benefits as a college student, she would need to work 20 hours a week, care for dependents or receive other types of assistance. In addition, when Gormley looked for other ways to get assistance, she encountered issues with the code of ethics for social work professionals.
She related how a social worker in Seattle who makes $28,000 a year, had seen clients at a food pantry that she and her family go to, and the social worker’s boss told her: “you can’t do that anymore because it’s violating the code of ethics.”
Throughout the rest of the evening, the group talked about how to get information about the SNAP cuts to residents who are food stamp recipients as many were confused after receiving letters from the State Department’s on Human Services. The South Side Workers Center will organize another forum to talk through these issues.