Politics & Government

Trump administration moves to limit food stamps, restrict free meals for children

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing that families who receive temporary government benefits should no longer be automatically eligible for food assistance, a change that could restrict access to free school lunches for 265,000 children.

In California, about 3.2 million children use free school lunches, according to the California Department of Education. It is unclear how many children would no longer be eligible if this rule went into effect.

Under the proposal, about 3.1 million people would lose access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides money for food to low-income Americans and is commonly called food stamps.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue framed it as a necessary change to cut down on abuse of the system. But the move was met with widespread disdain among Democrats, who called it “cruel” and “harmful.”

“It is outrageous, cruel and galling that after giving trillions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy and big corporations, the Trump administration, under the guise of fiscal austerity, is attempting to take nutrition assistance away from millions of Americans on the verge of hunger — including school children and people with disabilities,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.

A similar policy was proposed in a House Republican version of the farm bill in the last Congress, which was rejected. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that provision in the Republican bill would have saved the federal government $5 billion over a 10-year period and withheld SNAP benefits from about 400,000 households.

The USDA estimated its newly proposed rule would save $2.5 billion per year and strip benefits from 3.1 million people — both significantly higher numbers.

Currently, 43 U.S. states allow residents to automatically become eligible for food stamps if they receive benefits from another federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

Families with income at maximum 200 percent over the poverty level are eligible for TANF, while families can only make 130 percent of the poverty level or below to be eligible for SNAP on its own.

The USDA wants to change that by requiring those who receive TANF benefits to pass a review of their income and assets to determine whether they are also eligible for free food from SNAP.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” Perdue said. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint.”

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, called the proposal — which will have a 60-day comment period before the USDA decides to enact it — “a complete disaster.” About 63 percent of children in Harder’s district around Modesto use free or reduced school lunches.

“I don’t know what genius came up with the idea to take school lunches away from our kids, but we can’t let this happen,” Harder said. “Literally thousands of children in the Central Valley rely on the school lunch program just to get something to eat — this garbage proposal would rob them of the nutrition they need to stay healthy and get a good education.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Twitter also criticized the proposal. “This rule would take food away from working families. Prevent kids from getting school meals. And make it MORE difficult for states to help. Doesn’t the @GOP call themselves the party of ‘family values?’ he wrote.

California generally represents roughly 10 percent of the national SNAP caseload, but it is not clear at this point if Californians would represent 10 percent of the individuals affected by the proposal.

Sara Kimberlin, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, said the proposal would “increase food insecurity among children growing up in low-income families, especially because those children would also lose eligibility for school meals.”

Limiting food stamps “would increase economic hardship among families with low incomes who are already struggling to make ends meet in California, where the cost of basic needs like housing and child care, in particular, is very high in many areas,” said Kimberlin, whose organization tends to advocate for social services.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, gave a tentative statement of support for the administration after reviewing the rule.

“(SNAP) ‘categorical eligibility’ was established to simplify the application process for folks already eligible for benefits from similar assistance programs. Over time, changes have been made administratively to broaden categorical eligibility,” Roberts said. “Given the breadth of these changes, this proposed rule allows USDA to use existing authority to review these regulations and consider comments to ensure states are using this tool as it was intended — for program simplification.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.