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How would Trump’s food stamp plan affect low-income Americans?

The Trump administration has proposed a new rule that could eliminate food stamp benefits for 3.1 million Americans if the change goes into effect.

The proposal could save the federal government $9.3 billion over five years. But some worry that this policy could come at too high a cost, if families lose the ability to buy enough food they otherwise could not afford.

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, feeds an estimated 36.3 million Americans in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to preliminary data from the USDA from March. That’s down from a post-Great Recession peak of 47.6 million people.

The program was designed to allow states to automatically enroll people and ease the administrative burden of distributing food benefits without essentially auditing each potential recipient. Thus, in the past, it hasn’t asked recipients to prove they qualified if they already met the minimum threshold to receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, another federal social safety net benefit.

Now the Trump administration wants to ensure that people who have at least a couple thousand dollars stashed away can’t get assistance. As a result, it’s estimated that 8 percent of people currently enrolled on SNAP would lose their benefits.

What impact would these changes have on the program and low-income Americans? The PBS NewsHour asked food insecurity and poverty experts for insights.

What is the proposed change?

SNAP is the nation’s largest federal nutrition assistance program. To qualify for benefits, the government takes into account a person’s income (if any), how much they pay in rent or mortgage, utilities, child-related expenses, social security, veteran payments and medical bills if they are age 60 or older. That information enters a formula to calculate how much you would receive in food stamp benefits. On average, a person receives $127, or $1.39 per meal, in monthly SNAP benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The new proposal says that if your gross income is 130 percent above the federal poverty line — for a single person, that’s a little more than $16,000 — and if you have more than $2,250 in assets, you will no longer be eligible to receive food benefits from the USDA, said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist and director for the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The people most likely to be pinched by this change would be low-income working families and eldery individuals, Schanzenbach added.

But those who support the Trump administration’s proposal say the people who will lose their benefits have been exploiting the program for years.

This move would close a loophole that allows states to give people federal benefits without properly vetting recipients for eligibility, said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

Rector, who has studied poverty for decades, is a long-time supporter of streamlining food benefits and was one of the architects behind welfare reform in the 1990s. To him, the lack of “asset tests in food stamps” has long created “an aura of fraud and abuse, which undermines public confidence in welfare programs.”

“States are generally not to be trusted spending someone else’s money,” Rector said. “Never have been.”

Recently, in a video produced by Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative advocacy group, a millionaire in Minnesota named Rob Undersander highlighted this SNAP loophole when he, as a wealthy man, applied for and received food assistance benefits.

According to Schanzenbach, Undersander is “such an outlier” and not representative of the vulnerable people who stand to lose.

USDA data from 2017 showed a mispayment rate (which includes both the overpayment and underpayment of benefits) of 6.3 percent. But caseworker error was the most common reason, not fraud, the Washington Post reported, citing the USDA. And other government programs such as Medicaid had a much larger error rate.

How significant would this rule be?

This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has tried to scale back food stamp benefits or how many people receive them.

In 2017, the Trump administration recommended slashing $193 billion from food stamps in its proposed budget for the USDA. That proposed cut amounted to more than a quarter of food stamp funding over a decade and would have taken the form of changes to eligibility and work requirements.

When Congress passed the Farm Bill in 2018, conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the White House pushed for adding work requirements as a condition for receiving food benefits. That criteria was ultimately axed from the final bill. At the state level, this debate has played out for years, notably in Arkansas.

To Rector, this latest change proposed by Trump helps the federal and state governments maximize limited dollars to help low-income families.

“I believe in all these programs,” he said. “You need to target the resources you have.”

To Elaine Waxman, who studies food insecurity as a senior fellow with the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, the proposed rule is puzzling.

This change would take away “money that puts food on the table,” she said.

According to Waxman, as written, the rule would be the most significant rollback of federal food benefits since 1995, when the Clinton administration launched welfare reform. Despite the flourishing economy, wages and work hours have nevertheless struggled to rise, said Waxman, who warned that if these rollbacks take place, “you’re signing on for higher rates of poverty and food insecurity.”

“Low-income families are always trading off between food and other basic necessities, and food is often the first thing to go,” Waxman said. “When we see things that reduce access to SNAP, that’s going to ripple through people’s lives.”

What’s next?

The proposed rule will be published online in the Federal Register Wednesday. Then, a 60-day comment period begins, and anyone can leave positive or negative feedback about the rule. The federal government will then collect and analyze comments, issue its own response and final rule, modify the proposed rule based on people’s comments, and either table the action or enforce it as written.

Could the courts play a deciding role? It is too soon to know if food stamp advocates or states choose to pursue legal action, Waxman said. State governors will likely complain about the changes, Rector predicted.

Rector sees the potential change as having a marginal impact, and that it would make the program and state use of federal dollars “more transparent,” he said, adding that he does not foresee any unintended consequences.

But Waxman predicts the potential for hardship. “If you roll back a program and you don’t have evidence that there’s other significant income improvements coming through the door, then you’re signing on for higher rates of poverty and food insecurity,” Waxman said.