The Trump administration’s recent push to finalize new rules to tighten eligibility and reduce benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps — is a solution in search of a problem.
And it’s a heartless, unnecessary and counter-productive one, at that.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture published a final rule Wednesday — set to take effect April 1 — that would tighten the work requirements for certain adults to receive benefits by removing each state’s authority to set its own rules. The USDA also is working to finalize a rule that would remove state authority to consider the costs of utility payments in determining benefit levels and another that would remove nearly 1 million students from eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals.
Combined, according to a study recently released by the Urban Institute, the proposed administrative rule changes would mean 2.1 million U.S. households and 3.7 million people would lose their SNAP benefits; 3.1 million who still qualify would see an average loss of $32 to their monthly benefits; and 982,000 U.S. school children would lose their automatic eligibility for free and reduced-priced meals at school.
Rebuffed late in 2018 by Congress when similar cuts and restrictions were rejected as part of the budget deal, the Trump administration has now gone the route of rule-making to implement the changes, as it did recently in seeking to discourage legal immigrants from requesting public assistance — including food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid coverage — by threatening to disqualify them from consideration for permanent residency and citizenship.
That rule has been challenged in court by 13 states’ attorneys general, including Washington state’s Bob Ferguson. State AGs should now prepare their briefs to challenge the Trump administration regarding its new SNAP and school meal rules.
In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the state’s Democratic congressional delegation — including Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and 1st and 2nd District Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen — specifically protested the rule regarding the change to how utility costs are considered in determining benefits. If allowed to take effect, the letter said, more than 350,000 families in the state would see a significant reduction in benefits. And the loss would be greater than the average loss nationwide. Washington state families would lose about $47 per month, compared with a $32.20 average.
At the same time, it would actually increase costs for the state, the letter said. Implementing the rule would require the state Department of Social and Health Services to hire more than 52 additional full-time employees, increasing administrative costs for the state’s taxpayers, or forcing cuts elsewhere.
The changes are sold by the Trump administration as a cost savings to the government, $5.5 billion over five years. But the administration’s defense of its program cuts ignores the current decline in SNAP’s costs and the improvement in personal lives and strengthening of local economies that SNAP and other such assistance programs foster.
As it should be, the government already is spending billions less now than it did during the recovery from the Great Recession.
The current strength of the national economy — which the president never hesitates to trumpet — has meant that some 7 million people have already left the SNAP program. Federal spending on the SNAP budget has dropped from $78 billion in 2013 to $64 billion this year, according to a commentary by Dr. Cindy Leung, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, published in August in The Herald.
The rule finalized Wednesday seeks to remove each state’s ability to waive an existing requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 to 49 to work at least 20 hours a week or be enrolled in school or job training. Some states waive that requirement in counties with higher unemployment.
Such work requirements fail to recognize the number of such adults already working or how SNAP often serves those receiving benefits when they are between jobs.
Research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, found that SNAP provides crucial support for those seeking and continuing employment.
Workers in the low-wage market, the CBPP research shows, can’t rely on steady full-time work that pays a living wage, and more stringent work requirements aren’t going to create those jobs. The loss or limitation of benefits, instead, can lead to loss of employment. And a significant majority of those benefiting from SNAP are employed.
Because SNAP is typically used as assistance by adults who are between jobs, more than 80 percent of SNAP households work in the year before or after receiving assistance. For families with children, the research found, more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP and 90 percent work in the year prior or following their benefit period.
For those demanding that “waste, fraud and abuse” be rooted out from government assistance programs, SNAP already has a good record on that account. Only 3 percent of SNAP benefits represent over-payments, either benefits that went to ineligible households or were above allowed support, CBPP found. In those cases, relatively few payment errors were because of fraud or cheating but were judged as honest mistakes by recipients or program employees. At the same time, the Agriculture Department has disqualified thousands of retail stores that were fraudulently abusing benefit rules for their own gain.
Government programs such as SNAP should always be reserved for those in greatest need and those who can make the most of that assistance. But the rules that the Trump administration has proposed — especially after they followed Congress’ consideration and votes against them — offer little in savings to taxpayers, nothing in encouragement for the unemployed to find work and are just one more cynical attack leveled at the poor rather than on poverty, itself.