Our country has come a long way in the last 15 years in our public embrace of the LGBT community, marked most notably by the victory, nationwide, of marriage equality. Yet serious challenges remain, particularly as the baby boomers among us begin to age. Advocates have begun to raise awareness of serious issues affecting the access of LGBT seniors to health care and housing — issues of availability, quality, and cost, all of which are often exacerbated by cultural incompetency or even outright discrimination. However, there’s a “third H” that no one is talking about: hunger.
Hunger, especially among older adults, doesn’t seem to be a top priority, especially for those in ‘leadership’ positions in our nation’s capital. Early in May, Congress will vote on House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway’s Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, known as the Farm Bill. Flying under the radar, this bill enacts a fundamental and cruel shift in how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is administered for Americans who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. It plays politics with the lives of 41 million food-insecure Americans, chief among them older Americans. No attention is paid to the fact that LGBT older adults will be disproportionately impacted by these proposed changes.
On the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, my colleagues and I oversee the administration of SNAP to over 1 million people, nearly one in every 10 residents of L.A. County. The county is also home to nearly one-third of California’s LGBT community, more than 413,000 openly LGBT adults, many of whom are seniors for whom SNAP is a literal lifesaver.
The farm bill would require adults between 50 and 59 to work or enroll in a training program in order to receive SNAP. This rule ignores the reality that older adults face significant barriers to finding work. Research shows that the average length of unemployment among job seekers 55 and older is over a year, five months longer than for younger people.
Older adults also face barriers to accessing food assistance due to misconceptions about eligibility, perceived stigma about accepting support, lack of guidance through complex application processes, and ageism.
All of these challenges are amplified for LGBT people, because we are subject to more pervasive discrimination and challenges that arise from the intersection of gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, immigration status, and geography. It also remains legal to fire (and/or not hire) LGBT people in 28 states. If the farm bill becomes law, we could see millions of older Americans forced off of SNAP, many with nowhere to turn.
According to the Williams Institute, 27 percent of all LGBT adults — 2.2 million people — are food insecure and rely on SNAP, between 7 and 10 percent higher than straight and cisgender adults. Analysis from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a leading advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds, has added the sobering fact that LGBT seniors are 60 percent more likely to face food insecurity than their non-LGBT peers.
There’s much we can do to address this problem, and meaningful solutions don’t all need a pro-LGBT White House and Congress to come to fruition.
- We need cultural competency trainings for SNAP administrators and the charitable food sector, so no one ever faces the prospect of going back in the closet or discrimination in order to access enough food to eat.
- We must ban discrimination in employment, housing, and education on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity wherever such discrimination remains legal in order to protect millions from sliding into poverty under SNAP’s new work requirements; and
- In preparation for the wave of aging LGBT Americans, who are part of a larger “silver tsunami,” we need to work with states to amend interpretation of the Older Americans Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to ensure we provide greater funding for programs that prevent LGBT elders from falling into poverty.
The farm bill is the latest and most far-reaching addition to President Trump’s calls for new rules requiring beneficiaries of many social welfare programs to work or lose their benefits. We are facing an era in which our seniors are not merely shunted aside but denied the support needed to meet their most basic needs. We cannot let that happen.
SHEILA KUEHL is a Los Angeles County supervisor.