The Trump administration has shown that when it fails to pass priority agenda items legislatively, it will push forward through other means, while ignoring Congress.
The regulatory process has already been used to introduce restrictions to the nation’s largest nutrition program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps. In December, the administration signaled that it would push unemployed and underemployed people from high-unemployment areas off of the program, a policy rejected in last year’s farm bill. In May, it published a notice that it would alter how the poverty line is adjusted for inflation—making SNAP benefits smaller.
This week, the administration is attempting another regulatory change—a policy that also failed to pass in the 2018 farm bill—that would have the effect of kicking 3.1 million people off of the program, by restricting state flexibilities meant to ease the SNAP application process and expand access.
The administration has touted this change as closing an “automatic eligibility loophole” that has been “used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. However, the policy—categorical eligibility—is not a loophole at all. It is an intentional policy written into the federal SNAP law that makes it both simpler for low-income households to receive SNAP benefits and simpler for the benefits office to deliver them.
Categorical eligibility is wonky though, making it a prime candidate for the Trump administration to grab onto it, inaccurately explain it, and then mislead the public. “Mislead” may be too generous a term: The administration has flat-out lied about categorical eligibility, claiming that benefits are “often given without conducting a robust eligibility determination,” which is not true.
Here’s how it actually works: If a person or family is already receiving public benefits from a specific program, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or cash welfare, they can become automatically eligible for SNAP. They must still go through the traditional application avenues—like an interview—but they are eligible for SNAP by virtue of being poor enough to be eligible for other programs. Because intense paperwork requirements can be quite burdensome for a population that is already facing severe stress due to poverty, categorical eligibility is a commonsense policy.
States can also confer a wider definition of categorical eligibility, called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE), which allows flexibility in implementing state anti-poverty programs. This is the administration’s main target. While the federal statute permits those living at 130 percent of the poverty line to receive SNAP, BBCE allows states to expand the eligibility threshold (after all, the federal poverty line is extremely low). Through BBCE, states can allow individuals and families living at up to twice the poverty line to receive SNAP, so long as their net income (minus, for example, the cost of rent or child care) is less than 130 percent of the line. By virtue of making higher incomes, these families receive much smaller SNAP benefits, some receiving the minimum benefit of just $15 per month. As a result, only 0.2 percent of 2017 SNAP benefits went to households with net incomes above the poverty line.
In order to be eligible via the flexibilities allowed under BBCE, families technically must receive some sort of benefit funded by TANF. That’s why 43 states provide the TANF-funded benefit in the form of a brochure, pamphlet, or other information on the application. So, when the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) states, “Currently, benefits may be as minimal as simply providing a household with an informational brochure describing social services or access to hotline numbers,” they are aiming to misrepresent reality.
Expanded SNAP eligibility is not the result of a loophole: It is a saving grace by design, an obscure necessity that the administration has pounced on by describing as ridiculous, though the effects of this policy are anything but trivial. Eliminating this flexibility will hurt families closest to the poverty line, and may make a small increase in income, like a raise at work, a double-edged sword.
Besides limiting the number of people on SNAP, this proposed rule would also eliminate states’ ability to alter federal asset limits, which restrict eligibility for public assistance based on savings or other assets. Currently, the statutory limit is $2,250 for a family or $3,500 for elderly or disabled SNAP recipients, but states can waive or raise these, and most do. A wide breadth of research, including studies funded by FNS, has shown that asset limits hurt low-income families’ ability to save for an emergency. But conservatives have pounced, alleging with puffed-up hyperbole the anomaly that asset limits allow millionaires to be eligible for public benefits.
Finally, this change will also have an impact on hungry children. Eligibility for school lunch can be tied to SNAP eligibility, to make it easier for families to get their kids enrolled in the program. These kids will probably still be eligible for free lunches—but their families will need to apply. As stated, bureaucratic paperwork can act as an insurmountable hurdle between a family and public assistance.
According to the administration, “By establishing clear standards … the proposal will ensure SNAP benefits go toward Americans most in need.” In this administration’s opinion, however, there are very few Americans in need—remember that this is the same administration that responded to the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s decision to report on poverty in America as “patently ridiculous.” The administration is also clinging to the poverty line as the only definition of neediness (the very line it intends to change), though the “line” is an arbitrary cut-off point that can leave families earning just one penny over destitute.
But increasing obstacles to public assistance and pushing people off of it entirely seems to be a major priority of this administration: After all, if there are fewer people receiving public assistance, then one may think there are fewer people in poverty, and then the economy is working for everybody—right?
As with any proposed rule, the public has 60 days to comment on the BBCE change, after which it will likely be enacted, to the detriment of those who need food assistance to survive.