By Sarah Reinhardt, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Trump administration has announced a new proposed rule that would make it harder for millions to feed their families—and is defying Congress in the process.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before. Several times.
Remember that in 2018, Trump allies in the House of Representatives hijacked the 5-year farm bill in an attempt to make drastic cuts to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Perhaps you recall some of their proposals, including the much-derided America’s Harvest Box idea. Those proposals were ultimately rejected by Congress, which in December passed a farm bill that allowed SNAP to continue doing what it does best: providing nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable individuals and families in our country. But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from circumventing Congress and taking matters into its own hands with a series of regulatory changes to slash SNAP spending and participation.
For example, last November, amidst a blitz of baseless changes to immigration policy, the administration called for a rule change that would force many immigrants to choose between keeping food on the table and maintaining a path to citizenship.
And in December, on the heels of the farm bill’s passage in Congress, Secretary Perdue unveiled a plan that could cause more than 750,000 unemployed and underemployed adults to lose access to SNAP. And despite strong opposition from public health and anti-hunger groups and outright rejection by Congress itself, this proposal continues its slow and defiant march through the rulemaking process.
Now, Secretary Perdue is proposing an additional regulatory change that would make it harder for millions of parents, seniors, and children to qualify for SNAP, and could also put affordable school lunches out of reach for half a million kids in the process.
If we’ve become accustomed to the Trump administration’s attacks on the federal safety net, it’s because they’re part of a consistent pattern of undermining science-based policies that protect public health and safety. But that doesn’t make them any less alarming. The consequences are real, and could be felt by communities across the country—rural and urban alike—for years to come.
Understanding the latest SNAP proposal: Cutting categorical eligibility
This particular policy change focuses on what’s called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or “cat-el” for short. Put simply, it’s a legal provision that allows households who qualify for a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to automatically qualify for SNAP. This makes it easier for people who need help to apply for it—and it eases the administrative burden on the state and federal agencies responsible for running these programs.
Here’s the rub: States have flexibility in deciding what makes someone eligible for TANF and can set their own income limits and asset limits. Broadly, this has resulted in lower eligibility standards for TANF (meaning it’s generally easier to qualify for TANF than for SNAP) and some variability in regulations from state to state.
Enter the Trump administration, declaring it’s time to close this “loophole” by limiting the circumstances in which cat-el can be used. Specifically, the proposed rule suggests that cat-el should only be used in cases where TANF is providing a household with “ongoing and substantial benefits” of at least $50 per month over six months. It would also allow just three types of non-cash TANF assistance to count toward this minimum: subsidized employment, work supports, and childcare (together, these make up about 30 percent of all federal and state TANF dollars spent).
But categorical eligibility isn’t a loophole, and calling it one is both demeaning and dishonest. It’s an intentional policy provision, and it has been upheld by Congress for decades—most recently in the passage of the bipartisan 2018 farm bill. There’s a reason cat-el exists, and there’s a reason more than 40 states are using it.
Until we can prevent persistent poverty, we need anti-poverty programs
It isn’t difficult to become poor in America, but it’s undeniably difficult to be poor. Last year’s report from the Economic Policy income (EPI) showed that income inequality has been widening in every state since the 1970s, meaning it’s only getting harder for most families to make ends meet. On average, those in the top 1 percent of US families by income earned 26.3 times more than those in the bottom 99 percent in 2015. Of course, poverty and hunger are closely related, and it shows in the data. Nearly 12 percent of all households in the US—15 million in total—are classified as food insecure, and rates of food insecurity among black and Hispanic households are nearly double those among white households.
But rather than proposing policies to address the underlying causes of hunger and poverty, the Trump administration keeps trying to slash the safety net, while pushing misperceptions that poverty is a personal failure or character flaw—or worse, that it doesn’t exist at all. But make no mistake: the consequences of cutting access to SNAP are real, and they will have lasting impacts for families and communities across the country. The research is clear on the benefits that SNAP delivers to local economies, and on the critical protection it provides against food insecurity—particularly for kids. Young children who participate in SNAP are more likely to complete high school, and to have lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome in adulthood.
According to the USDA’s own estimates, this latest proposed rule would cause more than 3.1 million individuals to lose access to SNAP. Households with elderly members would be disproportionately affected: more than 13 percent of households with elderly members are expected to lose benefits. Furthermore, the rule may cause 500,000 children to become ineligible for free and reduced-price school lunches—a fact the USDA revealed on a press call last week, but omitted from the proposed rule itself and has refused to acknowledge since.
What you can do now
From now through September 23, the USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule. The next two months is a critical period for the administration to receive feedback about the policy and its potentially devastating consequences, both from members of the general public who can communicate what the rule would likely mean for their families, neighbors, and communities, and from public health professionals who can leverage their expertise to defend a program that is effective and evidence-based.