Trump administration food stamp rule could kick millions off program

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A new rule proposed by the President Trump administration could kick roughly 3 million people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps” — and critics say that could hurt residents in Michigan, where more than 1 million residents rely on that federal assistance.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formally announced that it’s seeking to close what it calls a “loophole” that allows states to automatically extend SNAP eligibility to the recipients of other federal benefits. 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement that the policy in question has been used to “bypass important eligibility guidelines” and amounts to “abuse of a critical safety net system.”

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The move comes in the wake of similar proposed rules from the Trump administration that would tighten restrictions on access to the country’s social safety net. One announced earlier this summer would change how the poverty line is calculated, likely bumping a significant number of struggling families from various benefit programs.

Peter Ruark

Peter Ruark is a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy, which is currently preparing their comment to protest the proposed changes to SNAP. Ruark sees the change to SNAP eligibility as part of the Trump administration’s broad agenda of cutting back the social safety net.

“It does seem very apparent that the Trump admin is trying to whittle away at the public assistance programs that help the most vulnerable in our society,” Ruark said. “We’re seeing court challenges to parts of the Affordable Care Act that could very adversely affect people with health care needs, we’re seeing the gutting of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has pursued far fewer cases than it had under President [Barack] Obama, and so this is very concerning.”

Critics of the proposed change to food stamp eligibility say that it could, inadvertently or not, keep millions of worthy recipients from much-needed money for food.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, harshly criticized the new rule and said it would “take food away from families.”

“This proposal is yet another attempt by this Administration to circumvent Congress and make harmful changes to nutrition assistance that have been repeatedly rejected on a bipartisan basis,” Stabenow said in a statement after the rule was proposed. 

Senator Debbie Stabenow | USDA photo by Bob Nichols, Flickr

She added that it would “prevent children from getting school meals and make it harder for states to administer food assistance.”

The USDA proposes to end a program called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or BBCE, which is used by more than 40 states, including Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories. Crucially, it allows states to bypass limits set at the federal level on the amount of assets an applicant can have before they’re disqualified for benefits.

That’s a key issue for conservative critics of the program, who say the policy opens the door to fraud. Policy experts like Dottie Rosenbaum at the Washington, D.C.-based liberal think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), however, say that the vast majority of those who receive benefits through BBCE have a legitimate need for assistance.

Rosenbaum wrote this week for the CBPP’s website: “The people losing access to SNAP would mainly be working families, seniors, and people with disabilities,” and that it would mostly affect “those working but still near poverty and those saving modestly in order to become more economically independent.”

It also opens the door to free or reduced-price school lunches for children across the country, and an NBC News report last week noted that the White House knew but failed to report in its proposal that their rule change could lead to half-million children losing that benefit.

“Families who receive food assistance are categorically eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch without having to apply separately for those programs,” said MLPP’s Ruark. “If broad-based categorical eligibility is eliminated those families would have to apply separately, and many could fall through the cracks.”

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Kait Skwir, deputy director of the Michigan Food Bank, noted that according to CBPP’s analysis those most affected by the proposed rule would be “working families, people with disabilities and seniors, and we have a lot of all of those things in Michigan, so it’s certainly likely that a lot of folks in Michigan will be affected by this.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) spokesperson Bob Wheaton said in an email that currently around 1.1 million Michiganders receive food assistance through the SNAP program, but that the department currently doesn’t have an estimate of how the population would be affected if BBCE were to end.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon | Casey Hull

MDHHS director Robert Gordon sharply criticized the proposed rule in an official statement.

“Instead of supporting work, this proposal punishes full-time earners. Instead of targeting fraud and abuse, this proposal goes after families playing by all the rules,” Gordon wrote. “It is a radical break from a long-standing, bipartisan approach to food assistance.”

The CBPP’s Rosenbaum noted in her analysis that according to USDA estimates, only around 4 percent of the overall SNAP program costs are due to recipients who use BBCE. 

And a Vox report pointed to 2012 data from the Government Accountability Office that showed only around 2.6 percent of SNAP recipients got benefits despite crossing the federal income threshold, and that on average those who did only modestly surpassed that limit.

Even further, the CBPP’s Robert Greenstein wrote last week that USDA data shows that as recently as 2017 only around .2 percent of SNAP recipients had “monthly disposable incomes — net income after deducting certain expenses like high housing and child care costs — above the poverty line.”

Skwir argued that the federal poverty guidelines are already an inadequate measure of need.

“Eligibility for the SNAP program is based on the federal poverty guidelines, which were developed about six years ago,” Skwir said. “It hasn’t really been updated since then, it’s very inaccurate, and it’s at a really low threshold, it’s already at a lower level.”

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“The people that are just outside this threshold for SNAP eligibility are the people who are being hardest hit by changes in policy like this. … Their ability to save money and to move toward self sufficiency, which is what the administration explained that they want, is dramatically impacted by a change like this.”

The USDA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until mid-September. Under the Congressional Review Act of 1996, Congress has 60 legislative days from the rule’s issuance to overturn it with a majority vote.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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