The New York Times on a Trump Administration proposal to change rules regarding food stamps:
The Trump administration, which often talks about the importance of reducing regulation, has found at least one place where it would like to add red tape. The Agriculture Department wants to make it more difficult for poor children to get enough food.
The department is proposing to end programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia that make it easier for low-income families to sign up for food stamps. The stated rationale is that some people who are getting help do not need it. But the evidence suggests that problem is quite small, while the proposed solution is likely to keep millions of Americans who do need help from getting it.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped 33.5 million people in the average month over the last year — mostly families with children, older Americans and people with disabilities — to buy a limited range of groceries from a list of supervised retailers. In place of the original coupons, beneficiaries now get an average of $127 loaded on a special debit card.
The program is enormously successful in mitigating poverty. Studies of Americans born in the 1960s, when the program was implemented nationally, show that children in families that received benefits went on to lead healthier and more productive lives.
Most beneficiaries live in households with incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line — $32,640 a year in 2019 for a family of two adults and two children. But in 1996, as part of a broad overhaul of federal aid for lower-income families, Congress let states expand eligibility even as it curtailed benefits. States can offer food stamps to households with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line, or around $50,200 a year for a family with two children. States also can waive a requirement that beneficiaries must have no more than $2,250 in assets.
Critics have long argued that the expansion was overly generous; the Trump administration is proposing to substantially restore the old rules. Officials at the Agriculture Department have highlighted the example of Rob Undersander, a 66-year-old Minnesota resident who qualified to receive food stamps even though he had more than a million dollars in assets because Minnesota, like most states, has chosen to waive the asset cap.
Mr. Undersander applied for food stamps in 2016, in the manner of a man who robs a bank to demonstrate the need for more security. He collected more than $6,000 in benefits he did not need, donating the money to charity while seeking to publicize his story.
"There may be other millionaires" on food stamps, an administration official told reporters.
But the proposed changes are not tailored to keep millionaires from getting food stamps. They would keep millions of low-income families from getting food stamps.
The Trump administration estimates that 4.9 percent of beneficiaries live in households with incomes above 130 percent of the poverty line. But all recipients, including those households, still must demonstrate that their disposable incomes, after deductions for housing, child care, and other basic expenses, fall below the poverty line. That's hardly an open-door policy — which is why relatively few households qualify. And those with higher incomes get smaller monthly payments. The program is meant to cover the gap between income and need.
The administration estimates another 4.1 percent of beneficiaries live in households with more than $2,250 in eligible assets. The standard excludes some kinds of savings, like equity in a home or money in a retirement plan. But it is still draconian. A worker in a minimum-wage job who managed to save three months of salary for a rainy day would lose his or her eligibility for food stamps as a consequence. The threshold was set at $2,000 in the mid-1980s, but only indexed to inflation in 2008. As a result, it has become much more restrictive than the original intent.
A reasonable asset ceiling, set at a level that allows rainy-day savings, has obvious appeal. But the evidence suggests that it would exclude very few people, because those with low incomes tend to have scant savings, and would impose large costs. According to the Trump administration's own estimates, states would have to employ the equivalent of 6,672 new workers solely devoted to asset verification. The government, in other words, probably saved a lot of money by allowing Mr. Undersander to collect some benefits.
In all, the administration says the government can save about $2 billion a year by denying benefits to 3.1 million people who would not meet the old standards. By the same logic, the government could save $60 billion a year by suspending the entire program. But those savings will not come from denying food stamps to millionaires. The vast majority of the government's money is given to Americans who are hungry, so they may eat.
The proposal once again highlights the gap between Mr. Trump's rhetorical promises to help lower-income American families, and the reality of his policies, which have systematically made life more difficult for those very families. The administration has slashed taxes on affluent Americans and significantly increased total federal spending — on Thursday (July 25), it announced plans to give another $16 billion to farmers hurt by Mr. Trump's trade policies — even as it seeks to make a show of fiscal discipline at the expense of children.
Congress should move to codify the current food stamp rules, which have been embraced by red and blue states alike, to protect millions of Americans from this act of theatrical cruelty.