Giving Compass' Take:

• H. Claire Brown reports that the Trump administration plans to propose stricter food stamp guidelines that would create a steeper benefits cliff.

• How can funders work to avoid benefits cliffs?  

• Learn about work requirements for food stamps

The Trump administration plans to propose a rule that will dramatically limit a popular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) enrollment process. This move is expected to render more than 3 million current recipients ineligible to continue receiving food assistance, according to Brandon Lipps, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service for the United States Department of Agriculture.

The new rule is aimed at “reforming” broad-based categorical eligibility, a method used by 40 states to automatically allow households who receive benefits via Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, another assistance program) to enroll in SNAP. “What we’ve found is some states are taking advantage of loopholes,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a call with reporters on Monday evening. The specific proposed changes involve trimming broad-based categorical eligibility to include only people who receive more than $50 worth of benefits for more than 6 consecutive months. Perdue added that these changes would “save money, but more importantly, preserve the integrity of the program while insuring nutrition.”

Right now, broad-based categorical eligibility allows families to earn slightly more money per month and still receive benefits. Whereas the SNAP program limits gross income to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $1,307 per month for a single person, broad-based categorical eligibility means that in some states people can earn as much as 200 percent of the poverty line and still qualify. These families are still subject to a net income limit of 130 percent of the poverty line; the difference is that they can subtract some major expenses like rent and daycare from the 200-percent total.

“This is the option that allows the state to look at the income circumstances of people who are starting to earn more money and see whether or not the expenses they have for other basics like childcare and like high housing costs are leaving them with too little money in their budgets left over for food,” says Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy organization.

Here’s an example of how this works, by way of a statement the Urban Institute’s Elaine Waxman made to a subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee last month: A single mom with two kids making $12.75 an hour would receive $96 a month from SNAP under normal rules. If she got a 50-cent raise, she’d exceed the 130-percent SNAP eligibility threshold and lose all her benefits. However, under broad-based categorical eligibility, her SNAP benefits would just be reduced to $65 a month, rather than zero. This phenomenon is called the benefits cliff, and broad-based categorical eligibility has done a lot to soften its blow.

Trump’s USDA has argued that states use broad-based categorical eligibility to provide benefits to too many people. A January 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service found that states provide households with low-cost services via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, such as brochures or referrals to hotlines, and in doing so grandfather those households into SNAP. This practice, the administration argues, unfairly allows households with too-high incomes to receive food assistance.

Read the full article about stricter food stamp guidelines by H. Claire Brown at The New Food Economy.