Trump’s budget would limit food stamp benefits for larger families

The proposal echoes racist, sexist myths about “welfare queens.”

Budget director Mick Mulvaney holding a copy of President Trump’s budget. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Budget director Mick Mulvaney holding a copy of President Trump’s budget. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

As things currently stand, a household that qualifies for assistance to buy food gets a larger food stamp benefit if it has a larger family. The logic is pretty clear: the more people there are to feed, the more help a low-income family will need.

But the Trump administration is proposing to change that set up. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Michael Young said on Tuesday that the administration is looking to impose a cap on food stamp benefits based on family size, cutting off extra assistance for those who have more than six people in their families.

That would mean a family would only ever be able to get the maximum benefit of $925, no matter how many people might be hungry. While only about 80,000 households receiving food stamps have more than six people, their incomes have to be very low to qualify, and the majority include children under 12 years old. The cap will cut approximately $180 million in benefits to the 175,000 recipients who live in households with more than six people.

“Seven people need more food than six people,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “If we only support a family’s ability to eat up to six people, it means that we are going to increase the risk of hunger and hardship for larger families.”

And it won’t just impact families with four or more children. Because food stamp benefits are calculated based on how many people purchase and prepare food together, it will also hit families that live with grandparents or other extended members. “I’m really worried about the impact on multigenerational families who are living together,” Dean said. “They’re going to be penalized for…being a family that lives and works and supports each other.”

The administration hasn’t offered up a reasoning for why it wants to implement the cap. But it’s stems from a policy adopted in the wake of welfare reform in the 1990s that was explicitly aimed at reducing the family sizes of women of color. Before reform, cash welfare operated much as food stamps do today: benefits increased for each new child in a family to help account for the added expenses.

But welfare reform was fueled by myths about so-called “welfare queens,” single black women who supposedly refused to work and instead had more children to get more benefits.

It was this myth that was promulgated by lawmakers pushing for family caps, who explicitly wanted to limit these women’s family sizes. When House Republicans released their Contract with America in 1994, one item included welfare reform, which the document promised would “discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by…denying increased [welfare benefits] for additional children while on welfare.”

Individual lawmakers used this language as well. “What this [cap] does is give welfare recipients a choice,” as New Jersey Assemblyman Wayne Bryant put it in 1992. “They either can have additional children and work to pay the added costs, or they can decide not to have any more children. It’s their call and a decision that puts them in the same position as anyone else in mainstream America who must choose among options.”

When California adopted its family cap in 1996, state Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle called giving families more benefits for additional children “perverse” and said, “This practice usurps the role of husbands and drives men away from their families.”

These ideas were always based on imaginary facts. In 1990, before welfare was changed, only 10 percent of households that received it had three or more children. Today, families that receive public benefits are the same size, on average, as those that don’t.

Still, 22 states adopted family caps in their welfare programs, although seven states have since repealed them. There is no evidence that family caps impact recipients’ family sizes. There is evidence, on the other hand, that they increase poverty.