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North Carolina bill would kick 133,000 people off of food stamps

More than 50,000 children could be affected by the State Senate proposal.

Volunteers package donated food at a food bank in Raleigh, North Carolina. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Volunteers package donated food at a food bank in Raleigh, North Carolina. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

For most people, the food stamps program is about fighting hunger.

For North Carolina state Sen. Ralph Hise (R), however, it seems to be about fighting the concept of unfairness — even if it means booting 133,000 human beings off of the food assistance rolls.

Hise defended the Republican senate leadership’s decision to rescind a 2010 expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) eligibility by arguing that the current system, under which more people are less hungry, isn’t fair.

The 2010 rules make anyone who qualifies for another North Carolina poverty assistance program eligible for food stamps as well, for households with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s a common policy known as broad-based or categorical eligibility, which streamlines the administrative process for poverty programs whose benefits come from federal dollars, not state budgets.

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But to Hise, local NBC affiliate WRAL reports, that program creates a pernicious “double standard” for food assistance.

“You’ve got a family of four making $40,000 who can’t qualify because their children are school-aged, but you’ve got another family that maybe makes more, but who qualified for child care subsidies and therefore qualified for food stamps as well,” Hise said. “What we are eliminating is that fact that another program automatically qualifies you for food stamps.”

Translation: Yes, hunger is bad, but helping some people avoid it while not helping others is even worse.

While the provision Hise defends is embedded in a state budget bill, it will not save North Carolina money. States do not pay for SNAP benefits, instead splitting the tab for administrative work with the federal government. Knocking people off of the program therefore doesn’t ease the state’s budget situation — and making the program’s administration more persnickety actually imposes new, avoidable costs.

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By forcing state aid workers to return to case-by-case evaluations for families seeking food stamps who are currently eligible categorically — a change that requires state workers to spend working hours conducting asset tests on applicants — Hise’s measure will drive state costs up.

Pennsylvania’s recent experience is instructive: The state abandoned asset tests for SNAP in 2015 after the governor’s mansion changed hands, a move that helped drastically speed up processing time for applications — thereby doing more work with fewer staff hours, saving taxpayers money.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 133,000 current enrollees would lose food stamps under Hise’s proposal, and that 55,000 of those people would be children. Those children would also stop getting free school meals, compounding their risk of going hungry.

Even before such a change, the state posts an above-average rate of food insecurity — the technical term for families who sometimes cannot access enough nutrition to support an active and healthy lifestyle. One in six face food insecurity statewide — and in certain eastern counties served by Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, that number is closer to one in four.

“The elimination of categorical eligibility is additional stress on families who are already stretched incredibly thin, not sure where their next meals will come from,” FBCENC’s Jessica Whichard told ThinkProgress. “This comes at a time of year when we are already concerned about those kids who do receive free or reduced cost school lunches, being out of school for the summer and not having daily access to those meals.”

The woe-begetting food aid cut is just one attack on low-income families tucked into the state Republicans’ budget plan. The caucus waited until 3:07 a.m. on Friday to launch several others.

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After a contentious night of amendments and counter-amendments, the supermajority Republicans rushed through a budget amendment that strips funding from education programs in Democrat-held districts and wipes out a half-million dollar investment in downtown revitalization.

Robeson County, which sends a Republican to the state Senate, is allowed to keep its downtown revitalization funding under the dead-of-night amendment.