For decades, a key provision of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has extended benefits to households that do not quite meet the program's poverty threshold, but are still food insecure. On Tuesday, the Trump administration proposed slashing this provision, potentially worsening hunger for more than three million people.
The proposed rule, now open for comment, eliminates a longstanding policy that allows states to simplify eligibility for households that already receive some form of public assistance. Category eligibility, as the policy is known, has allowed states to extend SNAP benefits to more people for more than 20 years.
By the administration's own estimate, weakening these rules will force 9 percent of current participants—or 3.1 million people—off SNAP, a program that's been shown to reduce food insecurity and create economic benefits for rural communities. Those still eligible will face a more elaborate application process.
The department itself has acknowledged that the change could harm the estimated 12 percent of United States households experiencing food insecurity. "The proposed rule may also negatively impact food security and reduce the savings rates among those individuals who do not meet the income and resource eligibility requirements for SNAP or the substantial and ongoing requirements for expanded categorical eligibility," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in the rule's cost-benefit analysis.
What Is Category Eligibility?
Under federal law, households qualify for SNAP if they meet specific requirements: typically, if their income puts them at 130 percent of the federal poverty line. But as decades of research have shown, this requirement is based on an outdated calculation, and leaves out a lot of Americans who are going hungry. According to analysis from the non-profit Food Research & Action Center, "the federal gross income test can deter eligible households from applying [and] increase red tape for both clients and caseworkers."
That's where category eligibility comes in. If a household is already receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income, they become automatically eligible for SNAP. According to the USDA, 40 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had used the rules as of 2018, feeding families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The policy fills a crucial gap: Economists have found that close to half of all Americans experiencing food insecurity have incomes above the official poverty line—mainly because this measure doesn't account for changes in a family's income or other factors affecting food insecurity.
For example, someone in a SNAP household might receive a small raise that puts them over the line, but the extra income isn't enough to compensate for the loss of their benefits, which average around $126 per month. With category eligibility, they can transition off food assistance while they "move up the economic ladder," Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow for the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said on Twitter.
A SNAP Loophole?
USDA officials have argued that people regularly exploit these rules, which they refer to as a "loophole." "[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," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
However, research shows that the problem Perdue cites—rampant abuse of the program—does not exist: The Economic Research Service (now facing its own attacks from inside the administration) has found that SNAP fraud is relatively rare.
Rather than a loophole, category eligibility is a solution, advocates argue: Designed to simplify the eligibility process for both administrators and participants, some version of these rules has been in place since the 1970s. "Categorical eligibility was seen as advancing the goals of simplifying administration, easing entry to the program for eligible households, emphasizing coordination among low-income assistance programs, and reducing the potential for errors in establishing eligibility for benefits," Congressional Research Service analyst Randy Alison Aussenberg wrote in a January of 2019 report on President Donald Trump's proposal.
Gutting Food Assistance
Gutting this provision aligns with the administration's previous attacks on food assistance programs, including the proposed changes to public charge rules that have prompted immigrant families to dis-enroll from SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Early analysis suggests this proposed change could be just as devastating. Republicans tried to weaken category eligibility in the previous two farm bills—and though the policy emerged unscathed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that cutting category eligibility would reduce SNAP spending by $5 billion over 10 years. About 400,000 households would lose their benefits, and 265,000 children would lose access to free meals through the National School Lunch Program, which is linked to SNAP.
"By undercutting this option, the proposed rule will only fuel rates of hunger and food insecurity by taking food off the tables of working individuals and families, children, seniors, and people with disabilities," Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement. "It will create a sicker and poorer nation by denying struggling households the food assistance they need for a healthy, productive life."