President Donald Trump wants Congress to slash federal support for food assistance to the poorest Americans by some 25 percent over the next decade, the White House budget unveiled Tuesday shows.
Such a deep cut could be backbreaking for the more than 40 million Americans — many of them children — who qualify for the nation’s premier anti-hunger program.
But the nature of the cuts Trump proposes are, if anything, even more devastating than the topline numbers — a nearly $200 billion total reduction in federal spending to fight hunger, double the amount Republicans sought to cut last time they swung for the fences on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) — suggest.
Trump’s budget achieves its cuts primarily through an unprecedented shifting of costs to the states. Food stamps have always been paid for solely by the federal government, with state lawmakers required to cover only one half of the program’s lean administrative costs.
Trump would end that 100–0 cost split, forcing state appropriators to come up with one dollar out of every five spent on benefits themselves. Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney has told reporters the rationale behind the change is that states need “skin in the game” in order to start reforming SNAP.
Trump’s team would argue that they’re cutting actual food assistance payments by a mere 10 percent, and asking states to come up with the other 15 percent in reduced federal support. The problem, Food Research and Action Center president James Weill said, is that states can’t do that.
“When there’s a local or national recession and state budgets get squeezed further, states will ratchet down their SNAP match,” Weill said. “They’re both ordering states to restrict eligibility and benefits in some respects, and creating a structure that will [impose budget crises and] lead the states to restrict eligibility and benefits in other respects.”
Should states indeed come up short, it’s unclear whether the feds would grudgingly pony up the difference or simply stop payments to enrollees.
“They’ve given no detail, and they probably haven’t thought it through that far,” said Weill.
Cost sharing, program dividing
Conservatives are generally fond of wasteful mandatory drug tests, costly administrative restrictions, and cruelly inefficient restrictions on purchases for SNAP. But Mulvaney did not specify what changes he thinks states ought to make.
The answer, according to the University of Illinois economist Craig Gundersen, is that no changes are necessary.
“I don’t know how states could improve upon what’s already being done,” Gundersen said. As it stands, the program is a model of efficiency and a crucial counter-cyclical check on recessions, which expands the governments generosity automatically just when people need more of it.
“SNAP is an enormously successful program. Compared to eligible nonparticipants, SNAP participants are 20 percent less likely to be food insecure,” Gundersen said. “I’d imagine states’ actions would just make things worse.”
Until this week, Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue agreed. “As far as I’m concerned, we have no proposed changes. You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken,” Perdue told a congressional panel last Wednesday.
But when the Trump budget dropped Tuesday, with its $191 billion cut to food stamps payments, Perdue played loyal soldier in a video message to USDA staff.
“President Trump promised he would realign government spending, attempt to eliminate duplication or redundancy, and see that all government agencies are efficiently delivering services to the taxpayers of America,” Perdue said. “And that’s exactly what we are going to do at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
The budget justification Perdue’s agency produced Tuesday offers one grim clue to how he intends to swing Trump’s giant food stamps ax. USDA’s stated goal in the document is for no more than 18.5 percent of families with children to be food insecure in 2018 — higher than the 16.6 percent mark the agency achieved in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.
Bogus bragging on work rules
After the cost-sharing scheme, Trump’s second-biggest move to artificially constrain food assistance comes from still-vague changes to the program’s work requirements.
Mulvaney portrays the administration’s work rules as novel: “If you don’t have any dependent children, and you’re an able-bodied adult, we start to phase in that requirement,” he told reporters Monday.
But it wasn’t novel. The population of food stamps recipients Trump and Mulvaney want to single out are already required to work or volunteer their time in order to continue receiving benefits. Nearly all SNAP participants who you’d expect to work based on their age, health, and family situation already do draw a paycheck.
Those existing work requirements are designed to be flexible, however. States can suspend them, with federal permission, when economic conditions are dire enough to meet certain thresholds. When there aren’t jobs to be had, the government doesn’t have to boot people off the food aid rolls for not working.
Mulvaney and Trump’s work rules proposal likely ends that flexibility, barring states from waiving the work rules for SNAP even when recessions bite hardest. Neither Mulvaney’s office’s documents nor the more detailed budget rationale from Perdue’s team fully explains the nature of the administration’s work rules, but both focus on the same “ABAWDs” (able-bodied adults without dependents) population subject to existing work rules.
But cutting these recipients off the SNAP lists even when there are no jobs to be had doesn’t add up to the level of savings that Trump, Perdue, and Mulvaney project. The USDA claims the new work rules will cut SNAP spending by some $75.1 billion over 10 years. Experts on SNAP have estimated that such a policy would save at most $20 to $25 billion over the same time frame.
Trump’s budget is premised on liar’s math in plenty of other places — most notably in its absurd claim that cutting rich people’s taxes by about $6 trillion will not only pay for itself but actually increase government revenue by a net $2 trillion — so it’s possible the discrepancies in the SNAP proposal have no actual explanation.
But even if they do, through some unheralded further tightening of SNAP’s work rules, Gundersen said the administration is still chasing ghosts.
“There is no evidence that SNAP reduces people’s work effort,” he said. “If these things are imposed you’re gonna have millions more Americans food insecure. And then the next time there’s a recession, we’ll see even greater problems.”
“Stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”
Trump also hopes to shave a further $2 billion off of SNAP’s total price tag by instituting a new application fee on stores. It is currently free for retailers to apply for authorization to accept food stamps. The USDA processed roughly 65,000 applications for new and re-authorizing retailers last year.
OMB projects the brand-new application fees to raise roughly a quarter-billion dollars a year in perpetuity, suggesting Trump intends to charge store owners close to $4,000 just for the privilege of seeking permission to participate in SNAP.
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” Gundersen said. “Especially for small grocers, imposing these costs on them, there will be a lot who say, ‘Forget it, I’m not doing this.’”
The revenues a store can generate from accepting government benefits cards are substantial enough that the new fee may not dissuade retailers en masse.
But as with any licensing fee or cost-of-entry increase, it will have some effect at the margin for retailers with more threadbare books. Some number of stores that would otherwise have begun offering services to low-income families now will not. The system which delivers food to the poorest will become artificially constrained in scope and reach as a result. Philosophically, the Trump administration is choosing to raise money off of food insecurity.
Even if the discouragement effect on expanding SNAP retailer networks is tiny, Gundersen said, stores that do pony up Trump’s new application fee will take it out on their shoppers.
“Where people do still apply, that cost will get passed on to consumers, driving up food costs,” he said. “That’s just a dumb idea.”