October 6, 2018

Last week, the Trump Administration announced that it would begin denying green cards and visa renewals to immigrants who have participated in nutrition assistance programs for their children, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as federal health programs like Medicare and Medicaid public housing assistance.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for programs like SNAP, but any children born in the U.S. are eligible. For many low-income families, SNAP is critical for ensuring that kids get enough to eat and don’t go hungry. Ensuring that everyone is nourished comes with broad social and economic benefits. Malnutrition, on the other hand, has major social costs. Currently, more than 40 million people in the U.S. use SNAP, including more than 12 million kids. The vast majority of SNAP participants are children or elderly people who aren’t expected to work, but of those who are able to work, almost half work full-time. They use SNAP not because they can’t take care of themselves, but because their jobs don’t pay a living wage.

While no one deserves to be subject to hunger and poverty, it’s particularly important for children to avoid these struggles, as malnutrition at a young age can leave a devastating legacy as the child grows up. Children, especially young children and infants, need healthy food to survive, grow, and develop.

While this has largely been seen as a new example of the Trump Administration’s cruelty toward immigrants, this draconian policy change also shows that the U.S.’s refusal to recognize the right to food is enabling the Trump Administration to use food, hunger, and child nutrition as a weapon. This weaponization is a clear violation of the right to food that is recognized all over the world.

The U.S. has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees the human right to food in Article 11, along with the right to housing, as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. Article 12 of the ICESCR grants the right to health. Even though the U.S. hasn’t ratified this document, there are a number of federal programs designed to help people afford food, housing, and healthcare.

Medicaid covers 67 million people and costs $575 billion, and Section 8 housing vouchers help 5.3 million people in 2.2 million households and costs around $19 billion. The SNAP program costs $70 billion and is buttressed by the “emergency food system” of charities like food banks and soup kitchens. Feeding America, by far the largest network of food banks and one of the largest non-profits in the world, has a budget of almost $3 billion and distributes over 4.2 billion meals every year.

Besides helping millions of families, these programs provide massive benefits to society and the economy. Every dollar in SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in GDP, while every dollar of Medicaid spending creates between $1.50 and $2 of economic activity. Meanwhile, hunger costs the U.S. economy at least $160 billion because it creates such poor health outcomes, and it may cost even more when you factor in educational outcomes, labor productivity, crime rates, and more.

And yet, these programs are insufficient to stop hunger and poverty or address our public health and housing crises, largely because these programs are not grounded in a human rights approach. These programs leave the provision of food, housing, and health to the free market and simply provide resources for low-income people to be able to afford services which are otherwise unaffordable. But an approach that takes human rights seriously would address the systemic factors that turn food, housing, and health from necessities available to all into privileges that are available only to those who can afford them.

Moreover, without a commitment to human rights, these programs can be threatened and weaponized against the poor and vulnerable – exactly what we are seeing now.

As my colleague Alberta Guerra says,

“a human rights-based approach … holds governments accountable and obligates them to ensure that human rights are being met. In the U.S., there is a lot of resistance among policymakers to recognizing the ‘right’ to food, seeing it as just a ‘desirable policy goal’ without any enforceable obligation. This framing has left us with food systems where 1 billion people around the world are suffering from hunger while 2 billion are experiencing negative health impacts from overconsumption.”

This needs to change.

Neither the market nor charity will end hunger. Without a true recognition of food as a human right, our government is free to weaponize safety net programs even against those who need them the most, such as children. Even before this announcement was made, many immigrant families were frantically trying to end their children’s participation in SNAP and the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program. Eighteen states reported drops by as much as 20% in participation in these nutrition programs out of fears that participation in them could be used to tear families apart. In response, almost 1,200 social services agencies and food banks signed a letter denouncing the proposed policy, which shows that there is a growing recognition that food, housing, and healthcare are basic and fundamental rights.

Given that the Trump Administration continues to hold thousands of immigrant children in concentration camps along the border, it is not surprising that they would stoop so low as to deny the children of immigrants food. However, the fact that they can do this at all shows that the U.S. needs to officially recognize and be held accountable for ensuring human rights, including the right to food.