The Trump administration has been consistent in its desire to make cuts in the nation’s food stamp program, and so its most recent proposal along these lines doesn’t come as a surprise.
Most recently, the administration has proposed a rule that potentially could eliminate food stamp benefits for about 3.1 million Americans. It’s not clear yet how many people that would affect in Oregon, but nationwide, the proposal would affect 9% of households. If that percentage holds true in Oregon, some 60,000 people here could lose access to food stamps.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said last week that the rule would close a loophole that allows people receiving only minimal benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to be eligible automatically for food stamps without undergoing additional checks on their income or assets.
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. The proposed savings would amount to about $9.4 billion over five years, the administration said.
The loophole in question allows states to automatically make people eligible for food stamps (the official name of the program now is SNAP, which stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), if they meet income and other requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, better known by the acronym TANF. The Agriculture Department says 43 states have taken advantage of that so-called “expanded categorical eligibility.” The result, the department said, is that people receive food stamps who don’t need it and wouldn’t qualify under regular program rules.
Remember that TANF is meant to give low-income families with children money they need to cover child care and other expenses. Most states, including Oregon, automatically enroll families in SNAP once they obtain TANF benefits. The new rule, if it goes into effect, would prevent states from doing this.
It’s also worth remembering that even though 85% of TANF families also get SNAP benefits, the vast majority of them still live in poverty, according to an analysis by two professors at the University of Michigan. So the idea that some recipients are unduly cashing in on both TANF and SNAP rings hollow.
Finally, keep this in mind: These programs are meant to give help to struggling families. By extension, that means children benefit from these programs; in fact, nearly half (44%) of SNAP recipients are children.
There’s a long-term investment that comes from these SNAP dollars: The University of Michigan professors cited a study showing that people who had access to SNAP benefits as children earned higher incomes and were less likely to develop chronic diseases as adults.
There’s a short-term economic benefit as well: The Agriculture Department has estimated that every dollar invested in SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity, and that pays a dividend for agricultural producers.
The proposal isn’t the first salvo the administration has fired against SNAP: You might recall, for example, the proposal in its 2019 budget blueprint to replace half of SNAP benefits with what it called “harvest boxes,” containing nonperishable food items such as cereals, beans and canned goods. Congress rejected the proposal, but it has returned in the administration’s 2020 budget draft.
If the administration’s goal with its most recent proposal is to rein in an out-of-control federal program, the numbers don’t bear that out: As the economy has improved, the number of SNAP benefits has dropped, from 47.6 million in 2013 to 39.7 million in 2018. The amount of money spent on the program has dropped as well, from $79.9 billion in 2013 to $64.9 billion in 2018.
If the administration is serious about cutting the amount the nation spends on feeding hungry families, a better approach might be to do whatever it can to keep the economy humming. Or it could continue its efforts to squeeze a few bucks from the neediest in our country.