Who Was Dealt Out of the Debt Ceiling Deal?

Some in Congress deliberately used vulnerable Americans as political pawns.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 30, 2023. McCarthy and President Biden reached a debt ceiling deal to stave off default until until January 2025, after the next election. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

On June 3, President Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA) into law, allowing Americans to breathe a sigh of relief that we managed to avoid a catastrophic economic situation. But to agree to this compromise, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) insisted on several detrimental and dangerous changes to anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Plain and simple, these changes will increase hunger and hardship among the most vulnerable Americans. As usual, their impact will be felt most acutely by women, particularly women of color.

Contextualizing the Compromise

Before delving into the policy implications, it’s important to understand a few facts about the current political landscape in Washington, D.C.:

  1. The U.S. House of Representatives is in the control of the Republican Party, which means that historically and realistically, as the majority, their priorities should prevail.
  2. Many of those serving in Congress view compromise as defeat, regardless of political party.
  3. If the U.S. had defaulted on its debt obligations, tens of millions of Americans would be thrown into abject poverty for years.

Imposing Harsh Limits on SNAP and TANF Recipients

One of the most egregious aspects of the FRA is that it withholds life-saving food assistance for people facing hunger and poverty to trim our nation’s budget.

Currently, SNAP benefits are cut off after three months for “able-bodied adults without dependents” (known as “ABAWDs”) between ages 18 and 49 if they cannot report at least 20 hours of work per week. Now, for the first time, these so-called “work requirements” will be imposed on people through age 54. This means that nearly 750,000 additional older adults will soon be at risk of losing food assistance. And a disproportionate number of them will be older women.

This is a dangerous policy decision on multiple levels. Let’s put aside that SNAP is our nation’s most important and effective safety net program—not a work program. Let’s ignore that until a few years ago, people were encouraged to retire and stop working at 62. Let’s pretend that the number of seniors receiving SNAP is not way too low, and let’s disregard that we should really be talking about increasing access. Aside from all this, repeated studies show that work requirements for programs like SNAP simply do not work.

Supporters listen during a news conference with faith leaders to reject proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill on May 7, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger / CQ Roll Call)

FRA also aims to trim the rolls of those who receive cash assistance through TANF, which by definition serves families who face significant employment challenges. The bill changes how states calculate TANF’s “work participation rate” by effectively removing some of the current state flexibilities, requiring states to collect new data about TANF recipients, and creating a new pilot program for five states to calculate the work participation rate in new ways.

These changes will disproportionately impact women, particularly women of color, who are statistically more likely to be single mothers and live in poverty. Given that the “feminization of poverty” is alive and well in communities across the country, this impact will be felt by the millions of women working low-wage jobs, working in the home, raising children by themselves, struggling to afford childcare, battling employment discrimination, and facing long-term effects of the wage gap.

Setting a Dangerous Precedent

Beyond specific policy concerns, it is reprehensible that some in Congress deliberately used vulnerable Americans as political pawns.

SNAP and TANF are not work programs. They never were intended to be, and they never should be. These programs act as safety nets for people who fall on hard times and need help. For decades, strong safety net programs have helped people put food on the table with dignity when they cannot support themselves rather than forcing them to seek emergency assistance from an overwhelmed charitable sector.

Furthermore, during the debt ceiling negotiations, and even for several years leading up to it, some elected officials have been cruelly blaming and shaming Americans who struggle with hunger and poverty. Rather than employing the true leadership that America needs in this moment, these politicians perpetuate predictable and tired stereotypes, faulting poor people for the fiscal crisis and making it more difficult for people to access government support when they need it most.

Just last week, members of the House Agriculture Committee debated how best to modernize SNAP, but unfortunately much of the conversation had to do with mistaken reports of widespread fraud (which there is not), erroneous claims that undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers can access the program (they cannot), and callous claims about preserving benefits for “those truly in need.” In an emotional moment, Congresswoman Sharice Davids (D-KS) pushed back on the vitriol, saying that “as someone who grew up poor and made it to Congress, it’s heartbreaking to see this dehumanization of people — conversations that essentially start with the premise of laziness or lack of desire to get an education or get a job. People who aren’t able to feed their kids aren’t sitting at home trying to figure out how to avoid getting a job. I hope we can have conversations where we’re not acting like people facing food insecurity are trying to do something negative.”

This moment requires real leadership. The history of hunger in the United States clearly illustrates that when our government leaders act with courage and wisdom, we can make real progress. But when our leaders target those who they deem as undeserving of help, we move backwards.

Setting the Stage for Future Policy Fights

Now that the debt ceiling has been lifted, Congress must fund government programs, which means we have more battles ahead of us.

One of the most urgent issues is how the debt ceiling bill imposed caps on federal spending, which could jeopardize access to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This program provides modest food benefits, breastfeeding support, and other services to low-income pregnant and postpartum people and their young children. President Biden’s budget called for boosted funds to match the increased participation in WIC. Still, the House Republicans would rather cut benefits—access to fruits and vegetables—for 1.5 million parents and 3.5 million young children under age 5. We will again have to fight for the health and well-being of women and families struggling with hunger and poverty.

Insufficient funds for WIC would exacerbate existing disparities, particularly among low-income women and communities of color, who already face barriers and challenges in healthcare, housing, employment, and more. Insufficient resources for WIC would perpetuate a cycle of limited opportunities and risk adverse health outcomes for future generations.

In just a few short months, the Farm Bill—one of the most transformational pieces of legislation that Congress regularly reauthorizes—is up for reauthorization, which only happens every five years. This is an opportunity to protect and strengthen essential anti-hunger programs like SNAP for those struggling. We must eliminate an egregious policy that creates a barrier to food assistance for single mothers. In several states, SNAP applicants must comply with state child support authorities to put food on the table.

The debt ceiling bill was far from perfect, and the fight for justice is far from over. Understanding what’s at stake for those who struggle in America, it is clear that we have an urgent mandate to restore and improve our country’s response to them. We must keep striving for a better future—one in which those in need are supported and those in power are held to account.

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Abby J. Leibman is the president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and was a co-founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Abby has received, among other honors, the California Women Lawyer's Faye Stender Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles' Ernestine Stalhut Award, UCSD's Top 100 Influential Alumni Award, USC Law Center's Public Interest Advocate Award and the So. California Employer Round Table's Carol F. Schiller Award. She has a J.D. from Hastings College of Law and graduated magna cum laude from U.C. San Diego with a B.A. in political science.