The Trump administration has proposed cutting access to food stamps—now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program)— for over 3 million families, seniors and people with disabilities. The administration has threatened to narrow something called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) in a way that would not only directly reduce people’s SNAP benefits but would also affect eligibility for free and reduced-price school lunch for hundreds of thousands of children at school.
There is some confusion about what’s being proposed here. After all, the change is really in the policy weeds, part of a proposed rule change that will not be debated transparently in Congress. Lots of people have said there is inadequate information about the pros and cons of such a change. In actuality, the issues are clear.
The President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bob Greenstein released a statement: “Federal law includes a provision that lets states strengthen SNAP’s rules to encourage work and saving among low-income households—two goals that have long had strong bipartisan support—through a policy called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE). States can use BBCE to raise SNAP eligibility limits somewhat so that many low-income working families that have difficulty making ends meet, such as because they face expenses for costly housing or child care that consume a sizeable share of their income, can receive help affording adequate food… The Administration’s proposal would dramatically narrow this policy… Children from families who would lose their SNAP benefits under the proposed rule would also lose access to free lunches and breakfasts at school.”
In a longer report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Dottie Rosenbaum explains that, “without BBCE, a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small earnings increase that raises its gross income over SNAP’s eligibility threshold (130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $2,252 per month for a family of three in fiscal year 2019). BBCE allows states to lift this threshold and phase benefits out more gradually, which lets households close to that threshold take higher-paying work and still benefit from SNAP.” BBCE also lets states adjust SNAP asset limits to permit families to save very modestly for emergencies.
While the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue says the rule change is necessary because of “abuse of a critical safety net system,” and while the Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher says narrowing the BBCE will “ensure that the government is providing resources to the children who are in need and not providing resources to those who are not in need,” defenders of the current BBCE rule disagree.
Bob Greenstein responds: “In trying to make a case for the proposal, the Administration argues that states are approving households for SNAP under BBCE without checking their incomes or assessing their need for food assistance. The claim is incorrect. To receive SNAP, all households, including those eligible under BBCE, must apply, be interviewed, and document that their monthly income and expenses, such as high housing and child care costs, leave them with too little disposable income to afford a basic, adequate diet. Indeed, the Department of Agriculture’s own data show that only about 0.2 percent of SNAP benefits went in 2017 to households with monthly disposable incomes—net income after deducting certain expenses like high housing and child care costs—above the poverty line. SNAP has some of the most rigorous program integrity standards and systems of any federal program.”
The NY Times‘ Lola Fadulu and Erica Green explain why the administration’s proposed rule change for SNAP eligibility would affect students’ qualification for free and reduced-price school lunch and breakfast: “Right now, households that receive benefits or services from another federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are automatically eligible for food stamps under the rules set by 39 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands. In some of those states, households with gross incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line—which would be about $50,000 for a family of four—are automatically eligible for food stamps. Children in those households are automatically eligibile for free school meals, too… Under the proposal, fewer families would automatically qualify for food stamps, and in turn, fewer children would get free school meals. Children in households with gross incomes between 185 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line would no longer be automatically eligible for any food assistance at school. And children in households with gross incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line would be eligible for only reduced-price meals.”
The change would also affect the operation of the subsidized meal program for entire school districts. For Education Week, Evie Blad explains: “(S)chools where a large number of students are directly certified in free meal programs, through participation in SNAP or other federal anti-poverty programs, may provide universal free meals to all students through a federal program called community eligibility.” Hundreds of thousands of students would lose access to free or reduced-price meals at school, although the Department of Agriculture has not verified the number of schools or students to be directly affected. Evie Blad spoke with one expert who estimates that 265,000 students would lose access to school meals. The NY Times Fadulu and Green estimate that “more than 500,000 students would lose automatic eligibility.”
The NY Times reporters spoke with Representative Bobby Scott, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor: “Mr. Scott said his staff were made aware that students would lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals in a phone call on July 22 with staff members from the Agriculture Department. In a letter, he implored Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, to disclose the figures as part of the department’s regulatory impact analysis, and restart the 60-day comment period: ‘The effect on school meal eligibility represents an important technical finding that must be made public so that stakeholders have the opportunity to comment on all aspects of the rule’s impact.'”
In his statement, Bob Greenstein sorts out exactly what kind of families would be directly penalized by the proposed rule change: “The proposed rule would make it harder for struggling people to make ends meet. It comes in the aftermath of the President’s 2017 tax law, which conferred large new benefits on the highest-income households… This rule would be particularly harsh for working families with incomes close to SNAP’s gross income threshold of 130 percent of the poverty line, who would be at risk of being cut off of SNAP if they got a modest wage increase or worked slightly more hours. Taking SNAP away from these families could discourage some recipients from earning additional income. The proposed rule would weaken SNAP’s role in supporting work while making it harder for families that struggle to get by on low wages to meet their basic needs.”