Trump seeks to cut food stamps, CT Dems push back

CAFCA | June 27, 2019 |

 

The Trump administration is moving toward tightening the requirements for food stamps, which could push tens of thousands of low-income Connecticut residents off  the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to soon propose regulations that would eliminate or reduce the ability of states to distribute food stamps to people earning more than 130 percent of poverty guidelines, which is $33,475 for a family of four.

Currently, some states allow those eligible for food stamps to earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, if the recipients are enrolled in another social safety net program.

That policy of “broad based categorical eligibility” for food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the program is officially named, allows Connecticut to enroll recipients who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $3,870 per month.

“Some states abuse those guidelines,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing last week.

According to the Connecticut Department of Social Services, there are 364,000 food stamp recipients in Connecticut, down from the more than 400,000 people enrolled in the program late last year. It’s unclear how many of those people would be affected by a cutback in eligibility, but anti-hunger advocates expect it would be tens of thousands.

Republicans say the expansion of eligibility in states like Connecticut has opened the door to fraud and abuse of the program and makes it too easy for people to receive benefits that should only go to the truly needy. They pointed to a man from Minnesota who attended last week’s hearing who said he had a net worth of over $1 million and applied for and received food stamps.

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said “millions of food stamp recipients” sell their benefits on the street “for 50 cents on the dollar.”

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, a member of the Agriculture Committee who grew up in Waterbury’s toughest housing project and whose family relied on public assistance, bristled at the notion that there is widespread fraud in the food stamp program.

“I’ve been on the other side of those benefits, so being in this room and in this committee hearing is somewhat personal to me,” Hayes said.

She told of living with her grandmother, who received $68 a month in SNAP benefits, and said she has also relied on food stamps herself.

Hayes said the adults in a family of four would have to work 95 hours a week at Connecticut’s minimum wage of $10.10 an hour to hit the income limit for food stamps.

“I know that because I worked three jobs and still qualified for SNAP benefits because I fell under the threshold,” Hayes said.

A former history teacher and national Teacher of the Year, Hayes gave Republican colleagues on the agriculture panel a math lesson.

“You would receive $642 a month in benefits, which breaks down to about $160 a week for a family of four. That’s $40 per person per week,” she said. “A gallon of milk is $3.99 in my state. Which means that 10 percent of your weekly SNAP budget would go for a gallon of milk. Nobody is taking advantage of that.”

While SNAP benefits are paid by the federal government and managed by the USDA, states operate the program and are reimbursed for administrative costs.

Robin Lamott Sparks, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said the proposal, and another plan by the Trump administration to change the consumer inflation measure used to determine eligibility for food stamps and other social service programs, would be devastating in places like Connecticut where the cost of living, including the cost of groceries and housing, is high.

“We couldn’t be more disappointed in this because we know it will mean more families and children will be going hungry,” she said. “It is unacceptable in this country.”

Lamott Sparks said there’s an unintended consequence of paring back the food stamp program – thousands of children in the state whose families are cut from the program would lose their free or reduced-price school lunches. In Connecticut, children whose families receive food stamps automatically are eligible for school nutrition assistance programs.

House Republicans tried to cut SNAP last year and force states to impose work requirements on recipients. But the Senate, also under GOP control last year, rejected the proposal.

Now, with Democratic control of the U.S. House, there is less of a chance for Congress to cut social programs

As a result, the Trump administration, which has asked Congress to cut SNAP by $220 billion, is trying to cut the program through executive authority.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong joined 20 other Democratic attorneys general in opposing the proposal to change the consumer inflation measure. In a  May 7 announcement, the federal Office of Management and Budget said  it is considering lowering the measure of inflation that is used when adjusting the federal poverty threshold. That threshold determines eligibility for food stamps and a host of other social programs.

The state attorneys general wrote the OMB that its method to calculate poverty is already flawed, resulting in “thresholds that are too low to reflect true poverty rates,” and “switching to a lower measure of inflation to calculate the (official poverty measure) under the current methodology would exacerbate the problems that already exist.”

“The Trump Administration wants to manipulate the numbers to magically erase poverty for millions of Americans in need,” Tong said. “This cynical policy change has no basis in the real economic situation of poor families. The proposal is more than shifting lines on a spreadsheet—it will deny Connecticut families food stamps, health care assistance and other assistance they rely on daily to stay afloat.”