Social service providers and anti-poverty advocates are voicing concern over two separate Trump administration proposals that they say would have far-reaching impacts on assistance program eligibility, affecting millions of people nationwide and thousands of Montanans.
One proposal, released in May, would change how the federal government calculates inflation when annually adjusting the poverty line. The comment period for that proposal ended in June. If implemented, critics say over time it would greatly decrease the number of people who qualify for a broad assortment of assistance programs.
The other proposal takes aim at an eligibility rule for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the proposal on July 24, kicking off a 60-day comment period. The change would limit “broad-based categorical eligibility,” in which states are given the option to adopt policies with less restrictive eligibility criteria by allowing households that receive benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to be automatically eligible for SNAP benefits.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called the rule a “loophole.”
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” Perdue said. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint.”
Montana is one of 39 states with broad-based categorical eligibility, according to the USDA, a list that includes both Democratic- and Republican-led governments. The proposed rule change would impose new income and asset restrictions, eliminating eligibility for 3.1 million SNAP recipients nationwide, according to the USDA’s own figures. Jamie Quinn, executive director of the Flathead Food Bank, said in 2018 there were 9,156 Montanans enrolled in TANF, including 2,146 adults and 7,010 kids, many of whom would no longer qualify for SNAP.
In its impact analysis for the rule proposal, the USDA acknowledges the change “may also negatively impact food security and reduce the savings rates among those individuals” and “disproportionately” affect the elderly.
“Approximately 13.2 percent of all SNAP households with elderly members will lose benefits,” the USDA impact analysis states.
Quinn opposes the proposal and said states need the flexibility to align government assistance with the specific needs of their populace. She said she regularly sees people at her food bank who are working multiple jobs but failing to keep up with the area’s rising cost of living, including housing prices that are outpacing wages.
“I personally frame this as, ‘What happened to states’ rights?’” she said. “We forget about states’ rights when it’s about helping people at the most risk.”
Quinn says fewer SNAP recipients will mean more people showing up at food banks like hers. She also notes an economic cost for grocery stores, which she says receive a substantial percentage of their revenue through SNAP.
U.S. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester railed against the proposed rule change in an Aug. 1 statement.
“We should be working to improve nutrition assistance programs for working families who are just trying to feed their kids,” Tester said. “Instead, policies out of Washington, D.C. are recklessly stripping away what little help they have putting food on the table. This baseless decision will hurt the 3 million Americans who need it most, and I will be fighting like hell to stop it.”
However, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte support the proposal, according to the Billings Gazette. Daines told the Gazette that the proposal would “reduce waste and make critical programs like SNAP more efficient, incentivize work, and ensure resources are directed toward those who need it most.”
Gianforte echoed Perdue by calling categorical eligibility a “loophole” for recipients “whose only eligibility is that they received a brochure.”
“I appreciate the administration’s move to close the loophole, save taxpayer money, and provide a safety net to those who truly need SNAP benefits,” Gianforte said.
But Quinn, disputing Gianforte’s “brochure” characterization, says people enrolled in assistance programs like TANF have already provided extensive financial and personal information.
In addition to the 3.1 million affected SNAP recipients, the USDA revealed in a phone call with a lawmaker’s staff that over 500,000 children would also lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals, according to The New York Times. The senior vice president of No Kid Hungry told the newspaper the proposal would be a “double whammy for those children.” That figure was left out when the rule was published in the Federal Register, an omission criticized by U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in a July 26 letter to Perdue.
Meanwhile, the proposal to use a different measure of inflation for adjusting the poverty line would impact eligibility and benefits for a wide variety of health care, nutrition and basic assistance programs, according to the Montana Budget & Policy Center.
“Over time this change would lead to a decrease in the number of people living in ‘technical’ poverty, not because they are earning more money, but because they will not meet the increasingly narrow definition of it,” the center said.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national progressive think tank, noted that the proposal is “entirely discretionary on the part of the Administration,” in that “no statute or regulation requires it to alter the methodology for updating the poverty line.” The center said it “could harm millions of struggling Americans.”
“The Administration presented no research on how low-income families’ costs for basic necessities has changed over time, the adequacy of the poverty line itself as compared to the cost of basic necessities, or the implications of changing the poverty line for individuals’ and families’ access to needed assistance,” wrote Sharon Parrott, the center’s senior vice president for federal policy and program development who formerly worked in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
Quinn says the poverty line changes would negatively impact local services across the board, including Meals on Wheels, WIC, free and reduced meals, medical assistance, Head Start and many others.
“It will affect so many programs, the programs that so many people who are working poor are using to survive and feed their families while working two to three jobs and living in a high-cost area,” Quinn said. “It’s alarming that people would be continually dropping out over time.”