With unemployment rates at record lows and the federal budget deficit up 17 percent year-over-year, the Trump administration will turn back to a familiar target in Republican cost-cutting maneuvers: entitlement programs.
In the final days of 2018, the Department of Agriculture announced that it would take steps to institute a series of rule changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—still known colloquially as food stamps—designed to "restore the [nutrition assistance] system to what it was meant to be: assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency." If enacted, the new restrictions would do away with a waiver program that grants exceptions to non-disabled SNAP beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 49 with no dependents, who would otherwise be obligated to participate in a work program for at least 20 hours each week.
The writing has been on the wall for months now. In September, President Donald Trump's economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, signaled that reforms to the "burdens and inefficiencies of entitlements" were imminent in order to rein in federal spending. Then, shortly before the announcement of the rule changes, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue openly bemoaned the fact that more stringent work requirements for certain SNAP beneficiaries didn't make it into the farm bill passed by Congress.
As the newly instated House majority, Democrats have already pledged to "explore all possible legal options" to scuttle any attempt at restricting access to nutrition assistance, which researchers have long argued does not disincentivize its beneficiaries from seeking work in the first place. But if the SNAP requirements were applied as planned, they would have major implications for some of America's most vulnerable communities—with LGBT recipients chief among them.
According to the results of a nationally representative survey published by the Center for American Progress in 2018, LGBT respondents reported receiving SNAP assistance at a rate of more than twice that of the survey's non-LGBT respondents. Caitlin Rooney, a research assistant at CAP, says that those findings can be attributed, in part, to the rampant employment discrimination that can "impede LGBTQ people's ability to attain and maintain economic security."
"We know one in five LGBTQ people have faced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and we also know that one in five of them have faced discrimination when it comes to equal pay and promotions," Rooney says. "We know trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. We know LGBTQ people have a harder time finding employment and keeping that employment because of pervasive discrimination, and these types of harsh requirements don't take that into account."
The findings in the CAP report corroborate earlier findings from the Williams Institute, a University of California–Los Angeles think tank that researches the intersection between public policy and gender. In a 2014 report, the Williams Institute concluded that there was an "elevated risk of food insecurity and SNAP participation for LGB/T individuals," and that LGBT adults were an average of 1.62 times more likely to report not having enough food for their families at some point in the prior year.
Taylor Brown, one of the co-authors of the Williams Institute study, says his research unearthed significant demographic factors associated with higher rates of food insecurity and SNAP participation within the LGB community (though, crucially, not the trans community), with LGB women, bisexual women, and both younger and much older LGB folks all reporting much higher rates of SNAP participation. But when it comes to data collection on transgender individuals, he says, "there is a glaring gap in research generally, and food insecurity research is no exception."
That brings up a larger point: It's difficult to lobby on behalf of the LGBT community's utilization of SNAP benefits when only scant data points exist.
Only a few government surveys ask respondents to record data on their sexuality or gender identity, leaving critical gaps for researchers interested in probing discrepancies along other demographic lines within the LGBT community. Transgender people are particularly underrepresented, and food insecurity data marks a striking instance of the failure to sufficiently record the lived experiences of trans Americans at the federal level.
The issue has made little headway in Congress since 2016, when a bill called the "LGBT Data Inclusion Act" was introduced (it was later reintroduced in 2017). The bill seeks to mandate the inclusion of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on federal surveys—including, notably, the United States census.
"People are actually more willing to give their sexual orientation or gender identity data than they are their income," Rooney says. "This is data that people are really willing to give, and it's just a matter of getting the government to start collecting that data."
In 2014, the Williams Institute convened a group of experts, known collectively as the Gender Identity in U.S. Surveillance, to report out a set of best practices for future population-based surveys on how to collect data on gender minority-identifying respondents.
The report recommends the addition of questions that allow for respondents to self-report gender identity data, such as a two-step approach that first asks recipients to make note of the sex they were assigned at birth, and then allows them to record their current gender identity. But until such steps are implemented, Brown says, it remains a "glaring gap that that community's not being represented in data collection, generally."
"You lose out on all kinds of data to find out about the well-being of these populations, and to be able to understand not only how they might be experiencing food insecurity and SNAP participation, for example, but what factors are influencing that," he adds.
Of course, should these rule changes take effect, SNAP might not be an option for so many members of this community in the first place.