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Why Trump’s new limit on food stamp eligibility will affect working families most

More than 40 states currently allow people who receive welfare benefits to become eligible automatically for food stamps, or SNAP. But the Trump administration has announced new rules to restrict that automatic eligibility, meaning 3 million may stop receiving food stamps. William Brangham talks to the Urban Institute’s Elaine Waxman about why the move could hurt the people SNAP aims to help.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the Trump administration today announced new rules that would change the way some people can get food stamps, which are known as SNAP benefits.

    Currently, about 36 million Americans receive this help buying groceries.

    As William Brangham now reports, the administration argues this change will save billions of dollars by removing millions of people from the food stamp rolls.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    The administration argues it needs to close a loophole in the food stamp program that allows some people with savings and other assets to get benefits that the administration argues they don't deserve.

    In a call yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue repeatedly cited the case of one retired Minnesota millionaire named Rob Undersander. This is him in a video produced by a conservative advocacy group.

    Undersander was able to enroll in the food stamp program and says he received benefits for almost two years. He says he did it to prove a point and that he gave the money to charity.

    The administration said closing this loophole would save $2.5 billion and remove about three million people from eligibility.

    Joining me now is Elaine Waxman. She's a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, where she studies federal food programs like the SNAP program.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Thank you for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if these rules go forward, the administration says about three million people will be booted out of the food stamp program.

    What do we know about who those three million people are?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So what we know about those who are likely to be affected by the rules change, should it go through, is that they are typically working families. They have low earnings, because they can still qualify for SNAP benefits.

    But they are disproportionately working. They also disproportionately tend to have children. So, in both cases, these are groups of people that the administration typically talks about in terms of wanting to be sure and support, that they want to encourage work.

    Unfortunately, those are the groups that are probably most likely to be hurt.

  • William Brangham:

    So, help me understand why, then, the administration holds up an example like this Minnesota millionaire, someone who clearly has plenty of assets, maybe not — I believe he's retired, and so he didn't have a lot of income.

    Why do they hold up that gentleman as an example of why they need to cut these other people off the program?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    I think it's a little bit of a distraction, because what we know from USDA's own data is that less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits go to people who have incomes above the federal poverty line.

    So, we're reaching exactly the audiences we want to reach. There's no evidence of widespread fraud. And it's allowed states to be responsive to families that are maybe earning a little bit more income and at risk of losing benefits if they get a 50-cent-an-hour increase in their wages.

    If that happens, and they lose SNAP benefits, they may actually be worse off. Those are the kinds of things that states have been trying to avoid.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the arguments that the administration seems to be making is that states need to do a better job of checking people's assets, again, this millionaire example, this — seemingly someone who had banked a considerable amount of money.

    What is the argument for not making sure people have no assets before you grant them food stamps?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So, if you think about it, we want people to have some level of assets, because that is their buffer against unexpected expenses and emergencies.

    For example, among seniors, we are very concerned that they may be in a position of having to spin down their limited resources without any opportunity to replace that with earnings.

    We want people to be able to cover an emergency room visit or a car repair that allows them to go back to work without going into debt. So this is a program that has allowed the relaxation of some of those assets, and also has reached exactly the population that we want to help serve, which is, again, those people who are really working hard to improve their outcomes.

  • William Brangham:

    We should say for the record that we asked the agricultural secretary to come on the program, and he declined that invitation.

    But the administration seems to be arguing that the economy is doing well, unemployment is incredibly low, and so it's OK, that it's appropriate to make these types of cuts to this program.

  • Elaine Waxman:

    So here's where we are. Even though the economy is improving, we still have 36 million people who qualify for SNAP.

    We know that people are getting work at higher rates. But the kinds of work they're getting is not necessarily high-paid and not stable hours. That's what we're facing.

    In the absence of a dramatic change in people's circumstances, which we're not seeing in this current economy, if you terminate SNAP benefits, we can anticipate that more people will be food-insecure, and more people will be in poverty, because we know from research that SNAP combats those two things.

    We really worry about that, because food-insecure families are more likely to experience hospitalizations. Children are less likely to do well in school. Seniors who are food-insecure are more likely to have chronic health problems.

    So we might save some money in one particular area aspect of our expenditures. It'll show up somewhere else.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute, thank you very much.

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Thank you.

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