Trump Administration Circumvents Congress For Food Benefit Cuts (Again)

The Republican welfare agenda has been transplanted from legislation to regulation.

The Trump administration is reviving another food benefit cut that Republicans couldn’t get through Congress.

Under a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, states would lose some flexibility to set eligibility standards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ― commonly known as food stamps ― which would push 3 million people out of the program.

“Our job is to make sure folks have the tools they need to move away from SNAP dependency,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters on Monday evening.

Perdue said that food benefits are wasted on wealthy people who should not be eligible.

“Recently a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight waste in the program,” he said, referring to a case that Republicans have trumpeted even though it is in no way representative of the program.

The draft regulation would limit a policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which lets states enroll people in federal food benefits without asking about their assets, such as money in a bank account, if they already qualify for assistance from another program. The policy cuts paperwork and allows poor people to keep their benefits while building savings or earning modestly higher wages.

Republicans call it a “loophole” and have been trying to close it for years, most recently in legislation that passed the House in 2018 but the Senate ignored. The House then passed a SNAP reauthorization omitting the eligibility restriction, as well as a separate clampdown on state flexibility that has also become a proposed regulation.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the changes have been “repeatedly rejected” by Congress on a bipartisan basis. “This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals and make it harder for states to administer food assistance,” Stabenow said.

The proposed food benefit restrictions ― which have not yet taken effect and could be blocked by lawsuits ― are part of a broader Trump administration effort to get people off “welfare.” That agenda has included adding work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries and proposing changes to the way poverty thresholds are adjusted for inflation each year.

“This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals and make it harder for states to administer food assistance.”

- Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Under the regulation the USDA announced this week, poor people could still qualify for SNAP based on their receipt of benefits from another program, but only if the benefits are substantial. Right now, someone can qualify for food benefits in most states if they receive even nominal assistance from another program, such as an informational brochure from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Democrats held a hearing in June to rail against the possible change. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes testified at the hearing that 25,000 Wisconsin households, or 8% of the state’s SNAP recipients, would lose their benefits.

“Many of these households are older adults on a fixed income,” Barnes said.

Nationally, 3.1 million recipients would lose benefits, the USDA said Monday. There were roughly 35 million SNAP recipients as of April, down from 38 million last year, with caseloads projected to continue shrinking even without new cuts. The program provides a monthly stipend that’s mostly limited to food bought in grocery stores.

To justify new cuts, Republicans pointed to the case of Robert Undersander, a Minnesota millionaire who signed up for SNAP benefits just to prove that he could. Undersander said he is retired and has no income, but because Minnesota is one of more than 40 states that uses broad-based categorical eligibility to waive asset limits, he could still receive benefits despite his wealth.

It seems unlikely that there are a lot of Undersanders out there. A 2012 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that “few” households that qualify for food benefits via the “loophole” had substantial assets. Less than 3% of SNAP households would not have qualified because their incomes would have been too high.

“The characteristics of these households were generally similar to other SNAP households, although they were more likely to work or receive unemployment benefits,” the GAO found.

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