by Bethany Blankley
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight is holding hearings to analyze the Trump administration’s rule change designed to end automatic eligibility to the federal food stamp program for recipients of another federal welfare program.
Currently, 43 states allow residents to automatically become eligible for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they already receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
A process in place for years, broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) has allowed states to confer SNAP eligibility to households if they are already receiving TANF benefits, allowing states to work around SNAP’s asset limits stipulated for eligibility.
The rule change requires TANF recipients to pass a review of their income and assets to determine whether they are eligible to receive SNAP benefits. Fourteen attorneys general sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over the rule.
States also administer the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides free and reduced-price lunches for school-age children. Democrats argue that once the rule change is implemented, 982,000 children will be ineligible for free school meals based on their family’s participation in SNAP.
They are getting the number from a USDA analysis published last year, which estimated that 45 percent of the 982,000 children who could lose automatic eligibility (445,000) would still be eligible for free in-school meals, and 51 percent, (497,000) would still be eligible for reduced price meals.
In both cases, households would need to fill out additional paperwork, according to the guidelines.
According to the USDA, 96.9 percent of school children will still qualify for free lunch. The FGA estimates the number is closer to 98.2 percent; even fewer would be impacted by the reform, less than one percent, would lose access to free or reduced-price lunches.
“Democrats are misrepresenting the facts in an effort to derail a rule that, in reality, achieves the shared goal of protecting the integrity of the food stamp program,” Sam Adolphsen, policy director at the Foundation for Government Accountability, said. “Only families with incomes above the federal guidelines would lose eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches.
The majority party for the committee stated the purpose of the “in-depth, two-day series of hearings held by four of its subcommittees [was] to examine the negative effects of regulations proposed by the Trump Administration relating to children. This unique and extensive series of hearings will assess the detrimental impact of the Administration’s actions on child poverty, housing, hunger, and health.”
Illinois Democrat U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks that “SNAP boosts the economy more than any other government program,” citing a report from Moody’s.
Yet widespread use of BBCE “has become so egregious that a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has argued.
According to Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Florida taxpayers lost more than $12 million in SNAP fraud alone in 2018; in Ohio, six individuals pleaded guilty last year to an $8.5 million food stamp fraud scheme; a Dayton butcher was found found guilty of 25 counts of food stamp fraud totaling $3.4 million; a Newark, New Jersey, grocery store owner pleaded guilty to a $3.49 million food stamp fraud scheme, among others that did not make national news.
The USDA recently awarded $5.1 million in SNAP Fraud Framework grants to fund state projects designed to reduce SNAP recipient fraud.
“Every dollar that goes out the door fraudulently or is used inappropriately is a dollar that isn’t going to the truly needy,” Adolphsen said.
Adolphsen, a witness called by the minority party to give testimony at the hearing, previously served as the chief operating officer at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
In his testimony, he explained that in his administrative role in Maine, he was responsible for having direct oversight of the state’s food stamp eligibility and policy office.
“I saw firsthand the damage that innocuous-sounding policies like ‘broad-based categorical Eligibility’ could have on the integrity of the welfare system,” Adolphsen said. “BBCE did not provide Maine with flexibility. Instead, it provided us with a loophole to put thousands of people on food stamps who did not meet federal eligibility rules – including individuals who had thousands of dollars in the bank and who owned private planes.”
He added that “BBCE opened a gateway for fraud by closing down any chance for our caseworkers to even look at bank statements or other information that would have led to more accurate case determinations.”
The food stamp statute sets out eligibility standards for both income and countable assets, Adolphsen notes.
“The asset limit typically applies only to liquid assets, like cash in the bank, recreational vehicles, or other available assets, and excludes assets like home equity, pension and retirement accounts, as well as several other classes of assets,” he said. “These standards were not set frivolously but were meant to safeguard scarce resources for those individuals who truly needed assistance to provide for their families. The standards were also designed to screen out those unscrupulous individuals who may try to scam the system. Unfortunately, states have exploited the BBCE loophole to bypass these eligibility standards and enroll millions of individuals who do not meet federal eligibility criteria into the program.”
Under BBCE, states can allow individuals with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to enroll in the program. For a family of four, that is near the median household income nationally and is higher than the median household income in several states, Adolphsen said.
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Bethany Blankley is a contributor to The Center Square.