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For Guys Like Vlad, Food Stamps Are a Lifeline That’s About to Disappear

When food assistance gets slashed this April, nearly 700,000 people will go hungry — and the male suicide rate will almost certainly rise in response

Vlad lives on $6.50 a day. His real name is Ilya Kobzar, but most of the non-Russian people who know him just call him Vlad. He’s 37 and homeless, currently living in an abandoned house in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s been a mild winter, with few days below 32 degrees, but it still dips into the 20s most nights. He attends a methadone clinic every day, where he has a few friends who help him out with bus fare or spare change when they have it. That change can be a lifeline — the difference between staying warm or suffering through the cold. He has no means to cook, and food stamps don’t cover any ready-to-eat prepared foods. “I’m always starving. I’m so used to it now,” he says. In the eight months he’s been homeless, he’s lost 62 pounds. 

Most days, he’s able to scramble together enough money to get a hot sandwich from McDonald’s; he otherwise survives on canned soups that he heats up in microwaves at gas stations. “I don’t wish this for anybody,” he says. “We live in the United States, where our government is supposed to help people. But it’s limited. I’m grateful for what I receive, but it’s not enough. Something has got to be done. I just think they don’t care that much. They’ve never been in my situation, homeless on the streets for eight months. I didn’t understand either until I became homeless.”

As challenging as Vlad’s day-to-day life can be, in the eyes of the federal government, he’s lucky to even receive the little he does. Vlad is what’s considered an ABAWD: short for able-bodied adult without dependents, the demographic that conservative critics of welfare most frequently target. In early December 2019, the Trump administration tightened the conditions under which ABAWDs may receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) benefits. Previously, SNAP required that an ABAWD may only receive benefits for three months during a three-year period, but these benefits could be extended to those working at least 20 hours a week or in vocational training. Individual states had the right to waive these requirements as necessary, but the new restrictions will now only allow states to consider waiving them if their unemployment rate exceeds 6 percent. 

There are certain exemptions to SNAP’s work requirements that will allow people like Vlad to be considered eligible to receive benefits — in most cases, people experiencing homelessness will still be able to participate in SNAP. Still, when these stipulations are enacted on April 1st, nearly 700,000 people will lose their benefits. (As of 2018, 55 percent of ABAWD SNAP recipients are male.) 

According to Joel Berg, president of Hunger Free America, male ABAWDs have long been vilified. “Through the time of Reagan, this population has been demonized,” he says. “The stereotype they want to portray is nonwhite lazy people getting free stuff from the government, while you white, hard-working people are working your tail off. It was never true. The largest number of participants in American history are white. And today the vast majority are working. They’re often working one or two jobs. And when they’re not working, it’s often that they’re temporarily unemployed. Or in the case today, they’re often temporarily underemployed.” 

In many areas of the country, while unemployment rates may be low enough that states don’t qualify for waivers, people are unable to work enough hours to keep their benefits. Often, they struggle to even be scheduled. “There are about 18 million Americans who are working, but hungry,” says Berg. 

Another disparity comes down to defining who is able-bodied. “There’s an awful lot of people with undiagnosed disabilities in America,” says Berg. This is particularly an issue for those with mental health issues. “Low-income people have worse healthcare or less healthcare, but I’d also argue a lot of the population [the government] claims is able-bodied really isn’t able-bodied.” 

Vlad falls into this category. He worked as a painter for 11 years, but was eventually laid off. Since then, his mental illness has made it nearly impossible for him to hold a job. He had previously attempted to receive disability income for his anxiety and depression, but was denied. His mental illness also prevents him from moving home with his children. After his son, who has autism, ran away several times, the Department of Children and Families demanded that Vlad leave the home. 

“For me to go back to my family, I have to be evaluated,” he explains. “It’s going to take about six months. For now, I’m homeless, living on the streets. Shelters are horrible. I get food stamps, $195 a month — that’s equal to around $6.50 a day, and that’s not enough at all to survive.”

Hunger in America is a massive, nebulous issue. It’s a complicated tangle of low wages, high costs of living, uneven job opportunity distribution, skyrocketing healthcare costs and a political system that doesn’t wish to address these issues. While the Trump administration and the Department of Agriculture cite the need to save money and promote financial independence, the costs associated with providing food assistance to ABAWDs represents a minuscule drop in the monetary bucket. 

“They haven’t added a penny for job training,” says Berg. “They haven’t added a penny for job subsidies. They oppose an increase in the minimum wage. This isn’t about rewarding work. This is punishing poor people and throwing red meat to their base because their base doesn’t understand the people being shafted are them.”

Historically, cutting SNAP benefits has had life-threatening consequences. According to a recent study published by Simone Rambotti, a professor of sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans, there’s a correlation between SNAP usage and male suicide rates. Adjusting for alternative explanations such as unemployment rate and percentage of people living alone, among other theories, the correlation remained consistent: When SNAP is more accessible, male suicide declines. “With all the necessary caution, I’d say that there’s reason to be concerned that restrictions to SNAP may be associated with negative health outcomes — especially in the case of future economic downturns,” Rambotti explains.

“Considering that other forms of welfare support have been diminishing over the years, SNAP has become more and more important,” he continues. “Some recent research shows that SNAP is very effective at reducing poverty. SNAP has been possibly the most beneficial policy after the 2008 recession, and that’s particularly important because there’s considerable evidence that economic crises increase the risk of suicide. All in all, it’s fair to conclude that from a health perspective, states that decide to restrict access to SNAP are making a risky move.” 

It remains to be seen exactly what will come of the nearly 700,000 ABAWDs whose food assistance will be eliminated come April 1st. For now, men like Vlad are simply focused on getting through each day. “In the morning, I come to the clinic and get my dose. I’m in recovery,” Vlad says. “Then I go to the library. I love history, so I spend all day on the computer reading about World War I and World War II. Then I go to the abandoned house where I stay. Every day I worry about the police knocking on the door, trying to arrest me for trespassing. But the owners have said it’s okay, that I can stay there until they take the house down in March when it’s warmer. It’s very cold in the house, but I’m used to it. It’s very tough.”

“I wish there was more help,” he adds. “I can only pray to God.”