First Person

I’m Disabled. The Trump Administration’s New Rule Could Take My SNAP Anyway.

Last month, the Trump administration introduced a new rule to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The rule is geared towards so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” who are unable to document 20 hours of work a week. When I heard the news, I double-checked my schedule, and I was in the clear: 35 hours that week. If I had missed a shift or two, then the outlook wouldn’t be so optimistic.

My fibromyalgia doesn’t care about my work schedule. It doesn’t time its flare-ups according to my current proximity to heating pads. Even more than Beamer, my service dog, fibromyalgia is the most constant presence in my life, on my mind at all hours of the day. In the morning, my joints could be so sore that I forgo my cup of coffee, because I can’t trust my grip and I don’t want to clean up another shattered mug. By the afternoon, those aches may give way to a fog that clouds my mind until any attempt at sustained concentration feels like running up a downward escalator — a lot of effort, but little payoff.

People with disabilities are supposed to be spared from the cuts. But in practice, many people with serious health conditions will be at risk of losing food assistance, because SNAP uses other government programs with an extremely limited definition of disability as proxies for disability status. So, I’m on the chopping block.

If I need to miss a shift because I woke up feeling particularly sore or because the afternoon fog rolled in early, the benefits I rely on to eat are threatened. Good day or bad, doctor’s appointment or not, I have to make sure I’m on time and ready, smiling at the customer service desk of the museum that is my work place.

Managing my condition is a full-time job, in addition to the job that actually pays me. To be able to show up for work, I have to go to three doctors’ appointments per week: two sessions of mental therapy and one session of occupational physical therapy. That doesn’t include the constant stream of other specialists who might have some new insight into my pain management: psychiatrists, rheumatologists, and pulmonologists.

Managing my condition is a full-time job.

All told, the copays add up to about $240 a month, just for the therapy sessions. That’s 12 times what I get from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 20 bucks a month for food sounds trivial, but anyone who has ever really struggled knows that $20 can make or break you.  For me, it’s the difference between an extra visit with a specialist or suffering until the next paycheck hits.

That doesn’t mean $20 is enough — like most of the strategies I use to treat my disease, SNAP is inadequate but essential. But the administration is putting it at risk with this new rule.

All of us have limited time and energy to spend in our 24 hours. But for some of us, to make it through requires more effort than others. In the three years since my diagnosis, I’ve come to terms with the fact that fibromyalgia isn’t going away. The appointments and the meds and Beamer don’t care about my work schedule because they make my schedule possible in the first place. With this latest rule, the Trump Administration is doing the opposite — they insist that I continuously prove that I’m building a life for myself. Why can’t I just build it?

Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit



Pennsylvania Plans Vote on Cutting Assistance for Its Poorest Residents

Toothpaste, medication, and bus fare. What do these have in common? For thousands of the poorest Pennsylvanians, there soon might be no way to afford them, or other basic necessities.

Next week, the Pennsylvania state legislature is scheduled to vote on whether to continue funding a program that helps around 6,600 residents make ends meet. The program, called General Assistance, is being targeted by the majority-Republican legislature as part of its bigger plan to dismantle an array of programs that help struggling Pennsylvanians get by. If they succeed, General Assistance will be eliminated effective July 1 of this year.

While it serves a relatively small population, General Assistance is a meager but critical lifeline for its participants. The benefit amount — up to $205 per month for an individual — might not seem like much, but the majority of participants are single adults who cannot work or have no other income whatsoever. Around 90 percent have disabilities. Participants include individuals in substance use disorder treatment, survivors of domestic violence, and adults caring for nonrelative children. And, importantly, beneficiaries are often ineligible for other public benefit programs because they don’t have dependents.

Many rely on General Assistance to serve as their only income while they await determinations on applications for Social Security disability benefits, which can take months and even years to process. Recipients indicate that they use the funds for essentials including rent, transportation, toiletries, and medical co-pays.

Recognizing the unique importance of General Assistance, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) wants the program to continue to be funded at its current level of about $50 million — less than 2 percent of the state’s budget — in the coming fiscal year. But, predicting that the legislature will kill the program, he is also proposing to reinvest the money into the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, or PHARE.

PHARE provides funding to build, rehabilitate, and support affordable housing throughout the state, some of which is allocated for households earning below 50 percent of area median income. Increasing housing affordability for low-income Pennsylvanians is extremely important, but Wolf’s office acknowledges that the two programs simply do not serve the same populations or purposes.

Eliminating General Assistance and reallocating its funds to PHARE will not mean that every current General Assistance participant receives access to affordable housing. A percentage would, but it would likely be a small one, based on the allocation of just $50 million and the fact that not all PHARE housing is for the lowest-income renters. Meanwhile, many of the General Assistance participants who don’t get housing would be left with no income.

Pitting these two essential programs against each other presents a false choice between basic necessities and housing development and affordability. Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul, both programs should be adequately funded to help people meet housing and other basic needs.

Alas, there is good reason to expect the legislature will get its way. Six years ago, the Republican-controlled state legislature acted to eliminate General Assistance, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the program on a technicality, after finding that the legislature hadn’t followed certain required procedures. This time around, the legislature has learned from its mistake and knows exactly how to legally eliminate the program.

The Wolf administration still has time to push back. And for the well-being of the lowest-income Pennsylvanians, it should take up the fight.



A Trump Proposal Could Make Selfies Dangerous for Disabled People

Posting a selfie in a cute bikini on a beach in Hawaii to Instagram or sharing protest pics on Twitter shouldn’t be grounds for being denied disability benefits, but if an expansion of social media surveillance at the Social Security Administration goes through, that’s exactly what could happen.

An Instagram story from a low-pain day or a Facebook post with an old photo might be used against an applicant for disability benefits, a change from the status quo where the agency only looks at social media in cases of suspected fraud. Thanks to a New York Times story suggesting a tiny line item in the agency’s 2019 fiscal year budget overview will turn into a real policy, the disability community is very worried.

All this for an agency with a “fraud incidence rate that is a fraction of one percent.”

The proposed expansion of social media monitoring for the nearly 20 million Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income recipients would have several negative effects, among them that disability activists who organize and build community online may be hesitant to do so. It will also feed directly into myths about Social Security fraud that have been wildly overstated in media coverage, such as a 2017 Washington Post series or a 2013 NPR feature package that made it seem as though “undeserving” people were lining up for disability benefits. (The average monthly benefits are under $1,300; being on disability is hardly a profitable endeavor.)

Proposals like this one underscore the common belief that everyone applying for disability is fake until proven otherwise. “I hate the assumption that everyone’s lying just because they need help,” said Rachel Graves, a member of the chronic illness community who receives disability and private insurance coverage, and who is already very cautious about her online presence. Graves is well aware that social media is used to police disabled people online by the government and insurance companies, as well as the general public, who are all seeking out disabled people who don’t “look sick.”

In response to the news, Mila Johns, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, deleted her Facebook account and plans to scale back on Twitter: “It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media. Because we don’t know how it’s going to be used.” Johns relies on communities found through sites like Facebook and Twitter to connect with people who share her diagnosis. “[Social media is] a lifeline for so many people,” she said, but she’s preparing an application for disability benefits, and she’s worried about what examiners might find, and judge.

The internet is valuable for outreach and advocacy, but also activism. Online organizers have used social media to fight attacks on the Affordable Care Act, organize in defense of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and engage in solidarity actions with other marginalized communities. Disabled advocates such as Imani Barbarin, creator of hashtags such as #AbledsAreWeird and #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow, and Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project and one of the co-partners of #CripTheVote, rely on social media for their work.

Images of disabled protesters went viral in 2017 during the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Those same protesters now get to worry about whether those pictures will be used against them to deny or revoke disability benefits; if you’re well enough to occupy the halls of Congress, surely you’re not “really disabled.”

The agency already has an entire trained investigative division that focuses on preventing fraud before it even happens, in addition to following up on complaints about current beneficiaries. It also uses predictive analytics software to flag suspicious activity among both applicants for and current recipients of disability benefits. (Like other uses of predictive algorithms, this has dangerous implications, requiring applicants and recipients to submit to the surveillance state’s collection and use of their data. Algorithmic bias is also a significant concern.)

Now, in addition, the new proposal would allow thousands of front-line “disability adjudicators” all across the country to conduct their own fraud investigations using social media data. These are the staff charged with determining whether a claimant meets the agency’s stringent criteria for disability benefits.

It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media.
– Mila Johns

On average, they are not very accurate.

In 2016, disability adjudicators approved 33 percent of initial disability applications and denied the other 67 percent. Claimants whose applications are denied have the right to appeal and have their case heard by an administrative law judge. After waiting one to two years to have their appeals decided, 46 percent of claimants are ultimately found to be disabled by Social Security.

In other words, nearly half of the people whom disability adjudicators rule as not disabled are actually determined to be disabled when they have their day before a judge.

In this climate, it’s easy to understand why disabled people might be afraid, and the consequences of curtailing social media engagement can be immediate and painful. “It is so isolating being really sick, especially when you have something unusual enough that you don’t know anyone else who has it. To find someone like you can make you feel less lonely,” said Graves.

The proposal also aligns with a long history of claiming that programs like SSDI and SSI are rife with “fraud.” For those concerned about fraudulent applications, the Social Security Administration maintains a fraud hotline and encourages not only workers, but also law enforcement and members of the general public, to report suspected disability fraud, in a “see something, say something” approach that encourages people to inform on each other.

This is the dangerous crux of the proposal: It will have a silencing effect on disability advocates at a time when they have won several high-profile victories with the assistance of online organizing, such as helping to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Expanding the use of social media in disability determinations could become punitive in nature, with poorly-trained adjudicators dealing with large caseloads making snap judgments about applicants, particularly those with outspoken political leanings. Disability activists who don’t “look disabled” or have variable experiences of disability, such as part-time wheelchair users, could pay a high price for leading public lives.

The proposal can be operationalized administratively, without Congressional action, though Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA) have expressed concerns about it. But it will make the internet less safe — especially for people like Johns who are primarily or entirely homebound and use it as a vital tool for participating in society. And it will make organizing harder for a fractured community that’s currently relying on the internet to help with the fight against dangerous, disablist policy proposals on the state and federal level.



Food Banks Warn They Will Not Be Able to Meet Demand If Food Stamp Cuts Take Effect

On the heels of the thirty-two-day government shutdown, a proposed administrative rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) once again threatens food access for people who rely on the program for basic needs — this time for an estimated 755,000 people.

For households that qualify for SNAP, February, the shortest month of the year, was a long one. During government shutdown, 40 million Americans who participate in the program experienced as many as 60 days between the issuance of their February and March SNAP benefits. The shortages in household budgets meant that food banks across the country were inundated.

“355 households on February 19,” says Kelli Hess, operations director for the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center in Missoula, Montana. Hess notes that historically, February is a slower month for the pantry — families are receiving tax returns, and the short month means SNAP benefits don’t have to stretch as far. Prior to February 19, the local food pantry’s busiest day had served 240 families. “It was absolutely fallout from the shutdown. People can’t survive without paychecks. And they can’t survive without SNAP. Which is why this proposed rule change is so scary.”

The rule change, proposed by the Trump administration, would limit states’ ability to waive work requirements during periods of high unemployment. Similar cuts to the program were rejected by the bipartisan Farm Bill passed by Congress in December 2018.

The administrative rule change would kick Miriam Bayer, a local academic, off SNAP. She is composed and deliberate in her statements as she explains the situation, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Missoula.

She holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Montana. During her undergraduate work at Washington Lee, which she attended on a full scholarship, she began her research on salamanders — work that earned her a first author publication before graduation. She spent a year researching in Brazil and was awarded a prestigious PhD candidacy at the University of Montana, a placement that allowed her to continue her education debt-free. However, a debilitating migraine condition forced her to pivot from the PhD candidacy to the master’s program. It also resulted in significant debt.

“Because of my medical condition, it took me longer to graduate, and I had a lot of medical bills. I would max out on my out-of-pocket every year seeking treatment. Between neurology, I was in a chronic pain program, physical therapy. That combined with the cut in income from switching from my PhD to master’s, I signed up for SNAP. I don’t remember when I started going to the food bank. And I took out student loans.” During school, Bayer’s SNAP access was not time-restrained because she was working as a teaching assistant. Upon graduation in December 2018, she was designated as an ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents), and the clock started ticking.

ABAWDs can only access SNAP for three months in a thirty-six month period, unless they can document 20.5 hours of work per week. Bayer, who has part-time employment as a tutor, works 14 hours per week, in addition to searching for employment in her field and working to publish her graduate research. She is in her fourth month on SNAP and is only able to continue receiving basic food assistance as a participant in a job seeker’s program through Missoula Job Services.

“I have to document 20.5 hours of qualifying activities per week. Because it’s not 20 hours per week, my job tutoring doesn’t count.” Bayer must document job-seeking activities and visit Job Services weekly to meet with her assigned jobs consultant.

“It is hard. It’s hard to spend time on my research papers, getting them out there, and working my job 14 hours per week, and applying to jobs, and trying to get additional tutoring jobs to make ends meet in the meantime so I can perhaps wait a little bit longer for a career position.”

It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.

“It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.” Sixty miles to the south in Victor, Montana, Barbara Willing is struggling to survive. At 64 years old, she says she will never be able to retire. “My story is one of someone who would have been okay, if not for the recession. I lost everything. It wiped me out.”

With decades of experience on her résumé ranging from office management and secretarial work to manufacturing, technical editing, and linguistics, Willing, who has her master’s degree in English, felt this time of hardship would be temporary. “But at my age, no one will hire you. Not for a job that earns a real wage.”

Living in a rural community away from many services makes things more challenging. “Driving to appointments, having to prove I need these programs. I don’t have the money for transportation, but there’s no way I could afford the rent in Missoula. I have to live out here.”

Willing has been on SNAP since October 2018. She describes the application process as demanding, but not impossible. She waited to apply for assistance until she was truly desperate, with zero dollars to her name and in danger of losing her housing.

“I don’t know how they expect people to make it. I know that as part of this waiver I’m on I can work for free, volunteering somewhere. But I don’t have the money to buy the gas!”

Barriers to employment differ widely from circumstance to circumstance. For Bayer, Willing, and the 755,000 people across the country in similar positions, access to basic needs like food makes the pursuit of career or gainful employment livable. After allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to go without paychecks during the government shutdown, this administration’s proposed rule is another example of tone-deaf policies that do not reflect the realities of America’s working class.

“The charitable food system is not prepared — is not capable — of picking up the need that this rule change would create. The shutdown was heinous, but it was temporary. This would be disastrous,” says Hess.

For people like Willing, “This rule change, it leaves me out in the cold.”

Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit



First New York, Now Virginia: Why Cities Are Pushing Back on the Handouts to HQ2

The bidding war Amazon incited over its second headquarters did not go as planned.

Instead of culminating in a celebration of the internet retail giant’s corporate citizenship, the yearlong search for HQ2, as it became known, turned into a PR disaster. First, activists and local politicians in New York City raised enough ire about their state’s $3 billion deal for a half-share of HQ2 that Amazon ultimately backed out.

Now activists in Northern Virginia, where Amazon decided to put the other half of its new headquarters, are also hoping to derail the company’s best-laid plans, or at the very least bring some much-needed attention to exactly what is being given away – all three quarters of a billion dollars of it –  to a mammoth company in the name of economic development.

“We’ve been door-knocking mostly in neighborhoods that are low-income neighborhoods, or immigrant as well,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La Collectiva, which is part of a coalition called “For Us, Not Amazon” that is critical of Virginia’s deal with the company. “It ranges from people not knowing Amazon is coming here to not knowing about the incentives that are being offered, to not knowing the effects of Amazon coming here.”

A consistent critique of the Amazon deal, in fact, is that the company hasn’t engaged with the community. “There was not a lot of information being given out, was the sense that we got,” agreed Maha Hilal, co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, which is also part of the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition. But of the people who were aware Amazon was coming, Hilal said, there were some major concerns.

“There is the issue of incentives. With the city granting Amazon incentives, [the residents] are basically paying their taxes to Amazon,” she said. “And the fear of displacement was a big concern. Even though it’s Crystal City where they’re slated to come, it’s going to impact many communities.”

On Saturday, Arlington County’s board will vote on a $23 million package of local tax incentives for Amazon, which would be in addition to the up to $750 million it will receive in incentives from Virginia at the state level. That’s on top of a favorable tax deal already offered to tech companies that relocate to Arlington’s “Technology Opportunity Zone.” Crucially, the proposed deal with Arlington did not include any pledge by the company to pay living wages or put money into affordable housing funds. Instead, Amazon simply has to meet office space occupancy goals.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the New Virginia Majority found that the new Amazon facility in Virginia will displace some 6,000 people, mostly from working-class families, as well as drive up housing costs and exacerbate existing traffic congestion woes.

“This issue with Amazon HQ2 coming here, it will disproportionately affect middle- and low-income people in many ways, in the short and long term. That’s just a fact,” said Julius Spain, president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. “We have to be cognizant of the low-income communities who may be driven out. They can’t afford to live in a quote ‘revitalized neighborhood.’” The For Us, Not Amazon coalition has asked the Arlington board to formally delay its vote, but as of this writing, that seems unlikely.

So why does this happen? How does one of the richest companies on Earth talk a state and county into giving it hundreds of millions of dollars? Because it can, and politicians pay.

This is how big corporations operate in modern-day America: They pit cities and states against one another in a battle to see who can dish out the most tax breaks, incentives, land grants, and other giveaways to an already-mammoth money-making organization. Companies hold their workforces for ransom and threaten to effectively kill them off by moving somewhere else, and lawmakers cave and pay up. And almost no one follows up in subsequent years to see if anyone’s promises have been kept, perpetuating the cycle.

Estimates for how much state and local governments spend annually on corporate tax incentives vary, but everyone agrees it’s in the tens of billions of dollars annually. And that’s likely an undercount, because navigating subsidies requires keeping tabs on thousands upon thousands of government agencies, offices, and officials, many of whom don’t do an adequate job of tracking what they’re handing out, or intentionally hide their subsidies entirely. A 2017 survey found half of the nation’s 50 biggest cities and counties didn’t even disclose the names of incentive recipients.

Plenty of research has been done on the efficacy of corporate tax incentives, and the consensus is that they don’t have real economic effects. As the researcher Timothy Bartik put it in a 2017 analysis: “Incentives do not have a large correlation with a state’s current or past unemployment or income levels or with future economic growth.”

There are many reasons the effect is so minimal, but one of the big ones is that tax incentives wind up “incentivizing” moves that companies would have made even if they hadn’t received a dime, with companies creating or destroying jobs based on the same considerations that fostered the move, not any particular tax break.

Take the case of Toyota. The car-maker received $40 million from the Lone Star State to consolidate three offices from around the country into one headquarters in the Dallas suburbs in 2013. It was the largest corporate tax break Texas had dealt out in a decade. And Toyota said afterward that the move would have made sense for the company even if those public dollars weren’t on the table.

“That wasn’t one of the major reasons [in] deciding to go to Texas,” Toyota spokesperson Amanda Rice told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2014, referring to the subsidies. Instead, “company representatives referenced a host of other factors, including geography, time zone and quality of life.” Yet the company received a $40 million windfall anyway.

This exact critique applies to Amazon and HQ2. After receiving data from hundreds of cities, and spending months picking over the particulars of 20 “finalists,” the company wound up choosing the nation’s capital and the world capital of finance. There are good reasons for it to have an expanded presence in both places that have nothing to do with tax rates. It’s possible it even had them in mind from the very beginning.

In fact, if taxes were the overriding concern, Amazon would have gone to Newark, New Jersey, or Montgomery County, Maryland, both of which offered it much more money than did Virginia and New York.

Given the evidence, why do corporate tax incentives continue to be a plague on state and local budgets?

Because, for a lawmaker, the appearance of doing something to bring in jobs makes for good headlines,  and the cost can always be punted to the next person.

“Politicians really do need to get re-elected, so there really is a political value to issuing press releases and cutting ribbons and passing along the cost to your next three successors,” said Greg LeRoy, director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate tax subsidies.

There’s also a collective action problem when it comes to specific subsidies: The company in pursuit of them has every interest in doing whatever it takes to secure its bounty, while opponents have diffuse interests, and may not be particularly harmed by any one deal in a way that necessitates mass resistance. Since the subsidies are bad for the public at large in the aggregate, but beneficial for one interest group in the specifically, organizing to fight back is made difficult.

Political scientist Nathan Jensen, currently at the University of Texas–Austin, has looked specifically at corporate tax incentives and found that their use has an explicit political benefit. “A governor reaps more reward for new investment in his or her state if his or her administration offered tax incentives,” he and three colleagues wrote in a 2013 study that looked at governors and whether their support was bolstered by the use of tax incentives to bring in new businesses. “In fact, a governor will be rewarded for offering tax incentives even if it does not succeed in luring the intended investment.”

And this is true not only at the state level. “In a study of local governments, we learned more about official use of business incentives for electoral gain. We found that directly elected mayors, as opposed to appointed city managers, offered larger incentives and engaged in much weaker oversight of business incentive programs. Elected mayors offered more money and conducted fewer and less rigorous cost-benefit analyses to investigate whether the incentives were economically useful,” Jensen wrote in 2016.  Electoral accountability really wasn’t anything of the sort.

Another factor playing into the politics of incentives is that Americans are starting fewer businesses than they used to. In the 2010s, new business start-ups activity hit rock bottom as the country emerged from the Great Recession, but that was only the culmination of a trend that has been occurring since the 1970s.  There are a lot of theories as to why this decline in America’s entrepreneurial spirit has occurred, including that it’s a result of the decrease in robust anti-trust enforcement, but it’s a certainty that it’s happening. And fewer new businesses means fewer ribbon-cutting opportunities for lawmakers, so they’re all fighting viciously over what’s left.

That effect is apparent even now, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with other New York lawmakers, are still trying to cajole Amazon into re-reversing its HQ2 decision. But for now, New York stands out as a rare victory for activists against the corporate greed machine.

“That was a victory for all communities of color, for all immigrant communities and low-income communities that are fighting daily against the threat of displacement,” said Cendejas. “Deals for economic growth shouldn’t be done on the backs of low-income communities and communities of color.”

“I’m happy that something happened up there in New York, where the people spoke and Amazon listened and they left,” Spain said. “That gave me some motivation to say, ‘listen, the same thing can happen in Arlington.’ Anything’s possible.”

This piece was adapted from “The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs” by Pat Garofalo, out now from Thomas Dunne Books.