As a native Staten Islander, I am deeply concerned about proposals coming from Washington D.C. that take an axe to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and how cuts will affect people in our borough struggling with addiction.
In Staten Island, in New York more broadly, and across the country, millions are struggling with the realities of opioid addiction and the challenges of recovery. Since the start of the epidemic, policymakers and politicians in both parties, including Congressman Donovan, have come to recognize that substance use disorders are a public health issue and that recovery requires treatment. Yet as someone who works for people who have struggled with addiction, I know that ending addiction requires more than medicine and therapy. It also means rebuilding lives and ensuring recovery isn’t derailed by something as fundamental as a struggle to put food on the table.
That’s where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, comes in. As one of our nation’s most powerful and effective poverty-reduction programs, SNAP helps more than 2.9 million New Yorkers afford healthy meals and on Staten Island alone, SNAP helps over 1 in 10 residents with basic nutrition needs.. SNAP works by providing modest benefits to people with very limited means – about $1.49 per person per meal – but it is proven to help people get back on their feet faster.
Despite its effectiveness, the House Agriculture Committee has proposed cutting the program by more than $17 billion and diverting much of that money to a risky new scheme of ineffective training programs and unforgiving penalties in their version of the 2018 Farm Bill, the legislation that funds SNAP. For every meal the 2018 Farm Bill takes from the plates of those with little, it increases spending on bureaucracy. In fact, it increases administrative costs by $15 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The bill also makes sweeping and harmful changes to SNAP that would increase paperwork, waste taxpayer dollars, and reverse previous efforts to improve the program and reach those in need of food assistance. All of this is done without any evidence to support such a dramatic change to the program.
For New Yorkers struggling with addiction, the Farm Bill under consideration would mean new and higher barriers to recovery. That’s because many of the harsh rules and requirements will apply to people just finishing their treatment. Under its “one strike and you’re out” provision, someone who doesn’t prove every month that they work enough hours would be kicked off SNAP for an entire year, unless they get a job that meets the requirement or requalify through an exemption such as disability ( our government does not define chronic substance abuse disorder as a disability, even though it is a deadly disease); the second time, they would lose benefits for three years. Instead of planning for their future, people recovering from opioid addiction will be forced to navigate unnecessary red tape just so they can feed their families. Unfortunately, this could result in many falling through the cracks, losing food assistance, and risking a dangerous fall back into addiction.
This week at our Spring Brunch, we heard the testimony of a Staten Islander who has struggled with addiction and has now achieved more than twenty years of recovery and serves tirelessly the recovering community of Staten Island addicts and alcoholics with all his heart. Elwood, like so many others, used SNAP benefits to support him in the long road to recovery. It would have been a more treacherous road without SNAP benefits.
Putting those already struggling with our national health crisis, like Elwood, in further jeopardy isn’t kind, wise, or necessary. It’s a step backward in a devastating fight that has already cost our borough too many lives.
I have been impressed by Congressman Donovan’s commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic. His efforts to increase awareness and target the causes of addiction are critical, and I hope to work with him to make them successful. I know that these efforts must include protecting SNAP.
To do this, I urge Rep. Donovan to reject the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill and any attempt to make drastic cuts and changes to SNAP. Those in recovery must have access to the resources they need rather than fear and worry about how they will feed themselves and their families. Our leaders must support policy changes to end this epidemic — not ones that make it worse, as cuts to SNAP would do.
Recovery from addiction is a long road, and we have a lot of work left to do to confront this epidemic head-on. We need dedicated leaders like Rep. Donovan to ensure we continue to place the lives of our family members struggling with addiction first and not let partisan efforts take us to a place of even more suffering.
*Rev. Terry Troia serves as President of Project Hospitality.