Trump’s Newest Plan for SNAP Would Trap Workers in Poverty

The Trump administration's proposal is also a backdoor attack on the school lunch program.

[Photo: An woman of color shops for produce at a grocery store.]
The Trump administration claims this change is needed to stop millionaires from gaming the system. But the real problem is how few U.S. families have any savings at all. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump dealt a scathing blow to the working class last week, announcing another massive regulatory attack on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—commonly referred to as food stamps—that the administration boasts would strip more than 3 million people of food assistance.

What makes Trump’s most recent attempt to slash the safety net not just cruel but also boneheaded is that it’s a blueprint for trapping workers and families in poverty. Let me explain.

The plan, a proposed rule published on Wednesday, would slash $25 billion from SNAP over the next decade by gutting a wonky-sounding but incredibly important provision in the law called broad-based categorical eligibility, which allows states to streamline SNAP eligibility for families that have applied for certain other assistance programs for low-income people.

Categorical eligibility help states run their SNAP programs in ways that explicitly help workers and families move up the economic ladder. This vital provision has for two decades enabled states to help workers get ahead by giving states the option to adjust the program’s income and asset rules in ways that remove disincentives to work. For example, it gives states valuable flexibility to smooth so-called “benefit cliffs” in SNAP, thus preventing low-income families from facing the sudden loss of food assistance when a worker’s wages go up even slightly.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a recent analysis painted a helpful picture of a hypothetical worker: A woman is earning $12.50 an hour and raising two kids. This puts the family at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, and they receive approximately $161 per month in SNAP. Thanks to categorical eligibility, if that worker gets a 50-cent raise per hour (an additional $86 per month in earnings), the family’s monthly food assistance benefit will go down by $31, leaving them with a net monthly gain of $55.

Contrast this rosy scenario with what would happen under Trump’s rule. If that same worker gets a 50-cent raise at work, the whole family will lose SNAP benefits overnight because it puts them over 130 percent of the federal poverty level cutoff. After losing their food assistance benefits, they would face a net loss of $75 per month. 

That means they’re worse off because mom got a 50-cent raise.

More than 30 states currently take advantage of the categorical eligibility option to smooth benefit cliffs so workers don’t end up facing this kind of catch-22. The option helps roughly 1 million people in the United States get food assistance every month.

Categorical eligibility also allows states to lift harsh savings penalties in SNAP, which trigger sudden loss of food assistance if a family’s bank balance goes $1 over a certain amount. So, on top of punishing workers who get a raise, if Trump’s new rule takes effect, states would be forced to take food assistance away from hungry families as punishment for having even modest precautionary savings.

Manage to save some cash in case the car breaks down again? Bye-bye food assistance. Save up, so your family has a modest cushion in case your hours get cut? There goes next month’s food budget.

The Trump administration claims this change is needed to stop millionaires from gaming the system. But the real problem is how few U.S. families have any savings at all. Nearly half of the U.S. population report they would have to borrow money in the event of an unexpected $400 expense. And 1 in 4 is either unbanked or underbanked, meaning they lack a bank account or rely on predatory alternative financial services like payday loans to stay afloat. Savings penalties in assistance programs can scare families into avoiding banks altogether.

In recognition of the perverse signals that savings penalties send—and the upward mobility-enhancing effects of having even modest savings—over 40 states have taken advantage of the categorical eligibility option to lift or altogether eliminate SNAP asset tests and help families save and plan for the future. A 2016 report from the Urban Institute shows the success of this shift: Families in states that have reformed rigid SNAP asset tests are more likely to have a bank account—and to have at least $500 in it.

In a Freudian slip-turned accidental truth-telling moment during a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) briefing call on Trump’s new rule, agency spokesperson Brendan Lipps (accidentally?) replied to a reporter’s inquiry about whether the rule would keep people from getting ahead for the above reasons—that the Trump administration “would continue to issue policies that move people back into dependency.”

This rule is a hell of a down payment on that front.

But wait, there’s more! Trump’s proposal is also a backdoor attack on the school lunch program. That’s because categorical eligibility ensures kids in SNAP households automatically get free school meals.

It is an important red-tape cutter that helps children get the nutrition they need to thrive in the classroom. For many low-income kids, school lunch may be their only opportunity for a nutritious meal all day. Studies have shown time and again how vital adequate nutrition is to kids’ brain function, school performance, educational outcomes, and more.

The Trump administration may already realize how unpopular cutting school meals is. The USDA omitted its own analysis estimating that more than 500,000 school kids could lose automatic eligibility for free school meals under the rule in the discussion of its impact when it issued the proposal last week, NBC News reported.  This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has been caught hiding evidence of the widespread pain its agenda would cause low-income families. Trump’s Labor Department was previously caught burying analysis showing billions in workers’ tips would be pocketed by their employers’ if the administration’s since-withdrawn “tip-stealing” rule had taken effect.

Congress on a bipartisan basis rejected the very change Trump’s proposing in this rule in the Farm Bill that protected SNAP from cuts in December. Naturally, Trump was disappointed, having vocally backed a draconian House GOP plan that would have taken food assistance away from 2 million people. But, as we know all too well, Trump doesn’t give up when he can’t get his cruel agenda through Congress.

Now, Trump is sidestepping Congress to dismantle the nation’s largest food assistance program, brick by brick. In fact, this latest attack on SNAP comes just weeks after the comment period closed on an earlier regulatory attack by Trump on the program—a rule that will take food away from upward of 1 million unemployed and underemployed workers and slash an additional $15 billion from SNAP over the next decade, if it takes effect.

Let’s not forget: We’re talking about a program that provides $1.40 per person, per meal on average in food assistance. This is what Trump is so hell-bent on taking away from struggling workers and families.

For context, just over a year ago, Trump’s tax law gave more in tax cuts to the top 1 percent than the cost of the entire SNAP program—which helps nearly 40 million people put food on the table each month. What’s more, cuts to SNAP end up hurting the economy as a whole. Trump’s previous regulatory attack on SNAP—which would take a far smaller pound of flesh from the program than the rule announced this week—is estimated to cost the nation more than 178,000 jobs over the next decade.

But hey, the cruelty really must be the point.