Trump administration proposal could kick 3 million off food stamps

(CNN) -- The Trump administration wants to tighten the rules governing who qualifies for food stamps, which could end up stripping more than 3 million people of their benefits.

The Agriculture Department issued a proposed rule Tuesday that curtails so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, which makes it easier for Americans with somewhat higher incomes and more savings to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps.

It is the administration's latest step to clamp down on the food stamps program, which covers 38 million Americans, and other public assistance services. It wants to require more poor people to work for SNAP benefits, and it is looking to change the way the poverty threshold is calculated, a move that could strip many low-income residents of their federal benefits over time.

Broad-based categorical eligibility allows states to streamline the food stamps application process for folks who qualify for certain benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. Some 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, use this option, which lets them eliminate the asset test and raise one of the income thresholds.

Republicans have long argued that this expanded eligibility option is a "loophole" that permits those with higher incomes and assets to get public assistance. GOP lawmakers have tried to limit it several times -- including in last year's farm bill, though it didn't make it into the final version. The proposed USDA rule is expected to save $2.5 billion a year.

"For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines," said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who pointed out on a call with reporters that a millionaire in Minnesota recently enrolled through the option to highlight the problems with it. "That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it."

Consumer advocates, however, say that the option helps low-income working Americans get the help they need. They still must meet the disposable income threshold for the food stamp program, though they can have a higher gross income (before deductions such as childcare costs are taken into account).

The option is "an opportunity-oriented policy to promote work and promote savings," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"There are about 800,000 people in Alabama who get SNAP food assistance, and all of them are covered under what's called categorical eligibility," said Policy Analyst for Alabama Arise Carol Carol Gundlach.

 

Under that provision, states are able to grant SNAP benefits without applicants undergoing income or asset tests.

These rules could change that.

 

"They would have to verify how much they have in resources," explained Gundlach.

Gundlach says it's not limited to cash but includes property on which someone does not live -- some vehicles -- and other resources. "For the state, this is going to be a tremendous burden. They don't have to put a lot of work into figuring out how much that old RV is worth."

USDA officials say this closes a loophole that has allowed people to receive assistance when they quote "clearly don't need it."

Gundlach doesn't see it as a loophole. "When Congress reauthorized the Farm Bill, just a couple of months ago, Congress elected to not abolish categorical eligibility or restrict it in any way. So, Congress clearly concluded that this is not a loophole."

 

Under the proposal, people receiving welfare benefits through TANF, wouldn't automatically qualify for food stamps.

The USDA says establishing clear standards, SNAP benefits will go toward Americans most in need.

The public can provide their input here.

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