Federal Food Stamp Change Could Affect 30,000 Arizonans

Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - 8:53am
Updated: Sunday, July 28, 2019 - 9:39am
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Edgar Milan places a pallet at the St. Mary's Food Bank warehouse in Maryvale.

The Trump administration is moving to make it harder for people to get benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Currently, the federal government gives states flexibility in how they enroll people in the program, a process known as broad-based categorical eligibility. States can let a family that gets other government benefits automatically enroll in the SNAP program. States can also have a higher income threshold and avoid asset limits. 

Arizona is one of 43 states that use broad-based categorical eligibility to enroll people in SNAP. The state gives benefits to people whose gross income is no more than 185% of the federal poverty level, which amounts to about $46,000 for a family of four. There is no asset limit in Arizona.

Brandon Lipps, acting deputy under secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called that flexibility a “loophole” that allows people who do not truly need the assistance to get it. Therefore, the USDA is proposing a rule that will end broad-based categorical eligibility.

“What we’re trying to fix today with this proposed rule is to ensure that the benefits are going to those in need based on the income and asset test that Congress provided,” Lipps said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

The stricter rules could remove about 3.1 million people from the SNAP program nationally, according to Lipps. He estimated the move would save the government $2.5 billion a year.

“This proposal will not only save money but more importantly, it preserves the integrity of the program,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said.

Proponents of nutrition assistance say the people who will suffer most from this policy change are those who earn above the federally-mandated SNAP limit of 130 percent of the federal poverty level and may have an asset like a car. The federal asset limits for SNAP enrollment are $3,500 in households with a member who is elderly or has a disability and $2,250 in households without.

Many people in this income bracket work, but may use food assistance as they gain more sound financial footing.

“Low income is still low income,” said Angie Rodgers at the Association of Arizona Food Banks. “Rewarding people for work is something that we are interested in doing, instead of taking away the food necessary to help them be healthy, productive workers.”

Rodgers estimated the end of broad-based categorical eligibility would affect about 30,000 people in Arizona.

“Instead of punishing working families if they work more hours or penalizing seniors and people with disabilities who save for emergencies, the President should seek to assist them with policies that help them afford the basics and save for the future,” said Stacy Dean, the Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on low-income Americans.

The new rule could also make it more complicated for schools to provide students with free or reduced lunch programs.

In the 2018-19 school year, about 260,000 Arizona students qualified for SNAP and were automatically enrolled in programs to eat at no cost. Any student who is no longer in the SNAP program would have to fill out a separate application for a free or reduced price lunch.

“Almost all of the children who will no longer be directly certified for school meals if their parents are not categorically eligible for SNAP would qualify for free and/or reduced price meals through the regular school meals application process,” Lipps said.

House Republicans last year tried and failed to get these changes in the update to the Farm Bill. The current proposal is being done through the rule-making process at the USDA.

The public comment period for the change opens Wednesday and lasts for 60 days.

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