Three million poor people could be booted from the food stamps system under a Trump administration regulatory proposal issued Tuesday.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) is aware the proposal will shrink grocery budgets for that massive share of people. It just cares more about making a conservative millionaire in Minnesota happy.
That was the message on a brief press call Monday evening, as USDA Acting Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps described the agency’s proposed elimination of a policy called “Broad-based Categorical Eligibility” (BBCE) to reporters.
The new rules will also force state program administrators to revert to old systems that pile up additional paperwork, staff hours, and costs. It was unclear if the agency factored those costs into the $2.5 billion in annual savings Lipps projected from the maneuver — a vanishingly small drop in the multi-trillion-dollar federal spending ocean.
The rule will also knock more than a quarter-million children out of free school meals programs. Though the agency expects almost every one of them would be able to win access at least to the reduced-price meal options in their schools, Lipps did not say what the agency might do to alert parents that they would need to fill out new applications for the program.
That is, if the rules ever get implemented. An initial public-comment period of 60 days begins on Wednesday.
The rule will likely attract huge numbers of formulaic objections, as advocacy groups provide their members suggested language to submit. But substantive notes challenging the USDA on facts, data, and academic research they’ve failed to acknowledge in their proposal are more likely to force further review, public policy experts told ThinkProgress. Luckily for opponents, the facts are not friendly to the administration here.
The BBCE system that Lipps and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue are attacking has been around for 20 years, enjoying broad bipartisan support until very recently. Under the current rules, states can choose – but are never forced – to expand access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beyond the relatively meager scope built into federal anti-hunger legislation.
Twenty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and the territorial governments of Guam and the Virgin Islands have adopted the modest expansion of income limits BBCE allows. The 20-year-old rules also allow states to suspend the harsh “asset tests” in federal law that deny SNAP to any recipient who manages to accumulate roughly $2,000 in personal savings. More than 40 jurisdictions have used BBCE authority to cancel their asset tests.
Millions of people across those states will become poorer, and their children less likely to get adequate nutrition every day, if the regulatory proposal takes effect. Every low-income worker in those states will also be actively discouraged from working more, taking a job with better pay, and saving up for future education or emergency expenses.
All in all, the changes would make working-poor Americans less independent, more prone to hunger and eviction, and more miserable than they already are.
These are not, of course, explicit stated goals of the conservatives who have spent years trying to trim back SNAP benefits. But right-wing lawmakers have embraced this technocratic crusade thanks to a millionaire right-wing activist in Minnesota, the conservative media that amplified his stunt, and some wonky ideological disputes over whose numbers are correct and whose are bogus.
What categorical eligibility is – and what it isn’t
In recent years, conservatives have been on the warpath over both BBCE and the food stamp program in general. Perdue’s team already pushed through a similarly counterproductive policy that restricts poor working families’ access to SNAP earlier this year, imposing additional work requirements and time limits that states have often chosen to waive in the past.
But Perdue’s new regulatory attack on working families finds its roots in a deeper fight over what it means to be poor, and who the government should count as impoverished.
The definition of poverty baked into federal statistics is unrealistically narrow and fails to capture the reality of American need. It is based on measures of family expenses from the 1950s that have been updated mathematically but not methodologically for half a century. The explosion in housing, healthcare, and childcare costs over the past few decades don’t show up in those figures as a result.
The government is miscounting – and almost certainly undercounting, rather than overcounting – the number of citizens living in severe privation.
Food stamps law acknowledges the imprecision of these metrics by offering SNAP benefits to families above the federal poverty line (FPL). All households earning 130% or less of FPL income are statutorily eligible for SNAP. That’s a hard floor that requires both houses of Congress and a sitting president all agree to change it.
Think of BBCE as a spare bedroom built onto that legislative house after the fact: Families earning more than the statutory eligibility break-point of 130%. FPL are still tremendously poor, and BBCE exists to alleviate their suffering under the same logic that led past policymakers to design SNAP to reach beyond FPL in the first place.
States can use BBCE to invite SNAP applications from households earning as much as 200% FPL, provided they qualify for some other low-income program funded through the separate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) system. These families don’t just automatically start getting these benefits — their incomes and expenses are still verified by caseworkers. The SNAP benefits they ultimately receive, if any, are less generous than those provided to so-called core food stamps recipients earning 130% FPL and below.
This bipartisan addition to the rules has in the past been embraced by such notorious liberal squishes as Saxby Chambliss and George W. Bush. But unlike the 130% rule in the law, BBCE rests entirely on regulatory decisions and political coalitions. As such, it’s a lot easier to tear down.
Perdue’s team is taking advantage of that vulnerability now, roughly a year after it became clear that Republicans in the House were not going to be able to slash the food stamps system through the Farm Bill. In fact, as Lipps tacitly confirmed on Monday’s press call, the ideological war against BBCE began long before then — and in suburban Minnesota, not around a table full of policy experts and poor people’s advocates.
A millionaire stunt and the right-wing hype machine
Conservatives have previously supported BBCE because it serves their longstanding goal of encouraging food stamp recipients to start earning enough money that they can exit the public assistance system.
BBCE helps cure a problem safety-net experts call the “benefit cliff.” Whenever policymakers draw an eligibility line, they risk doing major harm to the people just barely on the right side of it. Someone making 50 cents more than the FPL-plus-thirty mark is not meaningfully less needy than someone right on the line would be. BBCE rules allow state administrators of federally-funded SNAP to lump in those families wrong-footed by the precision of the statutory eligibility line.
Liberals tend to emphasize the social and economic value of helping low-income people buy food, and conservatives tend to emphasize the welfare-to-work aspects of BBCE’s cliff-smoothing. But whatever the cosmetic differences, conservatives repeatedly joined the political coalition preserving BBCE under both Presidents Bush and Obama.
But under President Donald Trump, a more radical wing of the conservative policymaking world has gained new traction. This administration has even tried to shrink the already-limited technical definition of “being poor,” arguing that only 1 in 50 Americans is actually poor. BBCE is just the latest good idea to be sacrificed in this ideological campaign for a radically emaciated version of public assistance to struggling people.
The family of five making half a dollar too much in wages or holding one dollar too much in the bank to qualify for SNAP is an easy example for categorical eligibility’s defenders. Conservatives like to hunt for one-off outliers scamming the system to argue that this is so generous and loose that it generates abuse.
Enter Robert Undersander, a Minnesota retiree with a net worth north of $1 million. He and his wife applied for and received food stamps, intending to serve as living examples of the Republican argument that the program is systematically rotten. Had Minnesota not gotten rid of the asset-limit component of its eligibility test for SNAP, Undersander claimed, people like him never could have fleeced taxpayers.
Undersander’s story quickly went viral in conservative media circles after he published an op-ed in his local paper recounting the stunt. When Democrats convened a House Agriculture Committee hearing this June in anticipation of the kind of regulatory assault on BBCE that Perdue unveiled Tuesday morning, Undersander didn’t make the official witness list but became the star of the show anyhow, after Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) recounted the Minnesota millionaire’s story.
“Mr. Undersander is not alone,” Johnson (R-SD) said, claiming that “tens of thousands” of similar millionaires might be skimming food stamps thanks to the current rules.
Even as he insinuated that Undersander’s intentional, political act to sabotage a system benefiting working-poor families was just one example among many, Johnson stopped short of saying there are tons of millionaires on SNAP.
And that’s because there aren’t. Three-quarters of all SNAP-receiving households in states with BBCE have less than $500 in liquid assets. Just under 7% have total assets valued above $10,000 that would be counted in non-BBCE states. There is no epidemic, no army of Undersanders abusing SNAP.
“If you actually play through who’s benefiting, it doesn’t line up with maybe more of a popular narrative about people who quote unquote take advantage or abuse welfare,” Urban Institute safety-net expert Elaine Waxman told ThinkProgress.
Back in June, Waxman, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), and other policymakers explained to the House panel how BBCE supports goals conservatives have pursued for decades, from encouraging work to administrative efficiency. But the Republicans at the hearing seemed to only have eyes for the millionaire dilettante in the gallery and the cheap, singular stunt he was there to perform.
“My thought is there was some intent there to sort of disrupt the conversation,” Waxman recalled. “Because again, when you unpack BBCE it frankly supports goals from both sides of the aisle.”
Undersander has been a fixture on Fox News, as well as the right-wing Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), which has led the effort to discredit BBCE for about as long as Trump has been on the political scene. This has enabled Undersander’s political project to thrive.
“A lot of newer members don’t know all the ins and outs of these programs. They acquire their information from popular media, and their understanding of it is pretty thin,” Waxman said. “And [BBCE] is hard for people to understand, so when they hear simplified explanations — that it let’s people with more money get on SNAP — that’s something people respond to from a just-common-sense point of view.”
For every one rich household like Undersander’s that’s skimming money it doesn’t need, there are hundreds of low-income families trying to diligently save for emergencies, who might lose a modest food assistance check if their state reverts to punishing poor people who save money. If Perdue succeeds in killing BBCE, most of them would quickly face devastating choices between eating and paying their bills.
“Generally the group that benefits from this program are working families who pay a huge share of their income on rent and childcare,” Dean said.
“There’s no question if you roll back BBCE you increase food insecurity and you increase poverty, for both families of children and others,” Waxman said. “You can decide there are tradeoffs you’re willing to make, but those should be acknowledged. And I wanted to make sure the committee heard that clearly: If you choose that, for whatever priority you’re supporting, you need to acknowledge you’re willing to accept increases in the problems that concern us.”
Lipps, Perdue, and their staffs know all of this. It’s well-established fact with 20 years of data backing it up. Lipps was a staffer on the key committee handling food aid for years prior to his promotion to the agency gig he’s currently in.
So why do any of this?
“As you know there’s a millionaire who’s come out to say he got on the program specifically to prove that he could. Americans won’t support a program that allows SNAP benefits to go to people like millionaires,” Lipps said Monday night. Undersander’s story, Lipps said, means “there may be other millionaires” getting food stamps.
But rather than just take the steps necessary to weed out the rogue millionaires, Lipps and Perdue will cut benefits for millions. Many millions, as it turns out.
“USDA’s estimating that a little over three million people are likely not to qualify for SNAP benefits after they are subjected to income and asset tests” waived under the current BBCE rules, Lipps said.
In other words: They’re knowingly choosing to throw 3.1 million babies out the window just to get rid of Rob Undersander’s bathwater. (The USDA declined to make Lipps available to ThinkProgress for follow-ups, but a spokesman doubled down on his claims in an email.)
Whatever role malevolence may be playing in Perdue’s maneuvers, simple ignorance seems to be an issue too. Republicans who think they hate BBCE appear to misunderstand what the system is, how it actually works, and what it accomplishes.
Hypocrisy and conservative self-sabotage
The key political attribute of the current regulations is that non-cash programs funded with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money can be used to trigger SNAP eligibility.
TANF replaced traditional welfare in the bipartisan safety net reforms of the Clinton presidency. Now, states get a chunk of money for TANF that they can spend in a variety of ways; fewer and fewer put any of it into basic cash assistance for the poor. Many of these programs are informational or advisory, rather than conferring something the current USDA administrators view as ‘real.’
Ending BBCE means that people served by the programs states choose to support with TANF money will face new hurdles to receiving SNAP. The new regs define a “substantial and ongoing” TANF service that qualifies people for automatic enrollment in SNAP as services with a monetary value of $50 per month lasting six or more months, Lipps explained.
Like Johnson and Undersander and the FGA before him, Lipps invoked the specter of people getting automatically enrolled in SNAP just because they were handed a brochure that was printed using TANF money. The interaction between those programs and SNAP, the right argues, in effect opens a back-door into food stamps for anyone who gets handed the right informational pamphlet.
But just because a pamphlet gives someone the right to apply for SNAP under BBCE doesn’t entitle them to receive it.
“Families still have to go through the application process, they have to document their income and circumstances the same way any other household would,” Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in an interview. “This isn’t just some bypass of the scrutiny the program applies.”
Lipps repeatedly told reporters this regulatory attack on poor families is really about making sure the rules for food stamps are the same across all states. But the suggestion that the new crop of conservatives now dislikes the ways states are using the flexibility block-granting proponents have always insisted is crucial is also at odds with longstanding conservative doctrine that holds that state-based systems deliver better service for the needy. Trump himself has repeatedly proposed converting Medicaid into a TANF-style block grant.
If the states know best, then the current BBCE relationship between safety net programs are products of that superior knowledge. The people getting it are truly needy, under the block-granters’ logic, and thus exactly the sort of people who should get a bit of extra help. Undersander’s narrative — and the wonky, contentious smears of BBCE’s execution across the country that have accompanied it — seem to have lured conservatives into an internally incoherent position on poverty assistance writ large.
“I think there’s an enormous disconnect between what states can achieve with the categorical eligibility option … and what some members of Congress believe it actually does,” Dean said. “Some seem to be under the misinformed impression that it lets non-needy people participate in the program, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Waxman was similarly charitable, saying she’s “not sure that people have necessarily thought through all the implications.”
“The conversation is mostly ideological, not necessarily connecting all of these dots [to] support work in low-income communities,” she said. The critics are “not realizing that sometimes these benefits are a really important work support.”
But it’s also possible they know exactly what they’re doing.
“Those families are doing everything we would want them to do, working hard and struggling to get by, and the federal work support programs don’t reach them,” Dean said.
“This allows them to get a little bit of food assistance to make it through the month. And it’s just shocking that that’s the group they want to target.”