The Trump administration is once again playing hunger games. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing changing its rule to “close a loophole” by which, it claims, recipients of other federal aid may be able to also receive food stamps without going through the proper scrutiny.
Under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, households receiving federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits — issued through state governments to help those in need pay for such things aschild care, job preparation and work training — also qualify for assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; i.e., food stamps. Saying this leaves the programs open to abuse, the USDA is proposing to change its rules, making it harder for low-income families and individuals to qualify for SNAP.
Thousands of families in New Hampshire and 38 other states that receive benefits or services from TANF are automatically eligible for food stamps, and children in those families are automatically eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program. With these changes, roughly 3.1 million people would lose their food stamps, according to the proposal. The New York Times reported more than 500,000 children would lose automatic eligibility for free school meals.
The representative case cited in making the change is that of a Minnesota retiree, Rob Undersander, who says he was able to collect food stamp benefits for 19 months — despite being a millionaire — because his state’s program doesn’t use a person’s assets to determine food-stamp eligibility. Why would a millionaire even contemplate applying for such assistance? To make the case that there are ways to beat the system, of course.
This is an ongoing storyline among those who oppose government assistance programs: that they are rife with waste and fraud, and commonly provide an “easy” life for those too lazy to actually work for a living. One might liken this to purposeful attempts to vote repeatedly or in the wrong community to provide “proof” of voter fraud. The reality is that such occurrences are rare — though less so because of those intent on proving their point.
Like any program, SNAP can be had if someone tries hard enough. Minnesota is among those states that demands very little scrutiny of applicants for assistance, which allowed Undersander to take advantage of the program. Such lack of oversight is a real issue that’s worth examining. But the wholesale change proposed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue goes too far the other way, cutting off recipients who’ve done nothing wrong.
The proposed change could cut $2.5 billion out of the program budget annually. That’s no small change, though it’s worth noting that, spread among the 3.1 million people who would lose benefits under the plan, it amounts to only $806 per person per year. That doesn’t seem like much to “scam” from the government. Far more likely is that the great majority of those receiving the benefits need them.
The real story is that there are millions of Americans struggling daily to feed themselves and their families.
“(I)t’s just another barrier that’s put in front of people who probably have enough barriers, to be quite honest,” Phoebe Bray, executive director of The Community Kitchen in Keene, told The Sentinel’s Meg McIntyre.
Worse, at a time when schools are readying to open, providing many of those children in need with free or inexpensive meals, the changes may well discourage participation. Those kicked off of food stamps may feel they won’t qualify for the lunch program, and not even try. And one of key dynamic of automatic qualification for food assistance is that some parents are reluctant to apply to their local school districts for school lunch subsidies. Many are embarrassed they have the need. If they’re required to fill out local applications, listing income and other personal information, they may not bother.
Elaine VanDyke, board chairwoman of the Concord-based nonprofit organization N.H. Hunger Solutions, noted cutting off the “direct certification” means families would need to fill out these separate, local, applications, something that will likely result in fewer recipients.
As has been noted time and again, such an approach is short-sighted. It saves a penny now, but costs a pound in the long run in additional services for those who, having been put at a disadvantage early on, don’t achieve their potential, and thus need public help or run afoul of society’s rules down the road.
Public comments can be submitted online regarding the proposed rule until Sept. 23 at https://bit.ly/2Ye3Tn3.