Joining the governors of 16 other states, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last week blasted a proposed rule by the Trump administration that could push some 25,000 Wisconsin households - and 12,000 children - off the state's food stamp program.
The rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would essentially eliminate Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE) from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
BBCE is a policy that requires states to enroll eligible applicant households in food assistance programs if they are already qualified for other benefits limited to low-income people, most notably benefits funded under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the Evers administration says.
According to the Evers' administration, states utilize BBCE to adopt less restrictive income and asset tests and to better coordinate SNAP with other state-operated programs, resulting in an increase in low-income households accessing food assistance.
But Evers says the new rule would effectively render kids, farmers, and families ineligible for critical food assistance.
"What's best for our kids is what's best for our state," Evers said. "We cannot afford to have nearly 12,000 children in our state go hungry. We should be making it easier for our kids, farmers, seniors, people with disabilities, and working families to have access to healthy foods, not harder."
Since it was established 55 years ago, Evers said SNAP has proven to be one of the most effective anti-hunger programs in the country. The USDA's proposal is expected to affect more than 3 million people across the United States, the governor said, and will make it harder for nearly 40,000 people in Wisconsin to make ends meet and put food on their table.
Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes added his voice of protest, testifying in opposition to the rule at a hearing before Congress.
"Broad-based categorical eligibility helps lift families out of poverty: it's helping farmers, caregivers, and factory workers all across our state," Barnes said in his testimony. "These individuals are contributing members of our society and taxpayers - but unfortunately, low wages and high expenses like child care and rent are making it hard for them to make ends meet. Broad-based categorical eligibility provides needed relief for these families - and it promotes work. Eliminating it would have dangerous repercussions in our state."
In an Aug. 28 letter to USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, Evers and the 16 other governors argued that the proposed rule, if it takes effect as written, would cause hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries in those states to lose access to basic food assistance.
"As the department's own analysis reflects, many of those impacted would be among the most vulnerable in our states, including individuals with disabilities and the elderly," the letter stated. "USDA's proposal also jeopardizes access to free and reduced price meals at school for an estimated 500,000 low-income children."
The governors said the government shouldn't make it harder for struggling Americans to make ends meet and put food on the table - which is what they say the proposed regulation would do. The BBCE policy has resulted in an increase in low-income households getting access to the food assistance they need, while also making SNAP easier and less costly for states to administer, the governors wrote.
"To restrict BBCE beyond what the law envisions, as this proposal calls for, would mean higher administrative costs for states and a reduction in access to essential food aid to over 3 million people across the country, according to your own estimates," the letter stated.
Everyone agrees that no one should be forced to go hungry in the U.S, especially children, the governors wrote.
"Yet, the department's analysis acknowledges that its proposal may worsen hunger at a time when nearly 16% of households with children are experiencing food insecurity," the letter stated. "We should be doing more to help these families, not less. Adding insult to injury, this proposed rule would eliminate automatic enrollment for kids in SNAP families in the free and reduced price lunch and breakfast programs. Everyone knows that a child can't learn when they're hungry, but these changes would make that a reality for thousands of kids in our states and across the country."
The governors also contend the proposed rule is misguided because it would punish people working hard to get ahead by reinstating the "benefit cliff" for families whose incomes come close to the eligibility threshold, meaning a small wage increase could result in a substantial loss of benefits.
"The change would similarly penalize families with children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities for having modest savings by cutting off their food aid," the letter stated. "This in turn traps low-income households - especially those on a fixed income - in a cycle of poverty, making it impossible to weather unexpected events like a job loss or car repair. Discouraging struggling Americans from seeking higher paying work and socking away for a rainy day runs counter to the goals of SNAP by suppressing opportunities for low-income households, rather than increasing them."
Finally, the governors argue, the USDA proposal erroneously claims that states approve households for SNAP using BBCE without verifying incomes or thoroughly assessing the need for benefits.
"To qualify for SNAP, all households, including those eligible under BBCE, are subject to an interview and must provide thorough documentation to demonstrate that their monthly income and expenses, such as housing and child care costs, leave them with not enough income to afford access to adequate food," the letter stated. "Notably, according to the most recent data from USDA, only 0.2% of SNAP benefits went to households with monthly disposable incomes above the poverty line in 2017."
Simply put, the governors wrote, there is no evidence to support the proposal's claim that BBCE compromises SNAP's integrity or leads to an increase in assistance being directed to ineligible households.
A loophole, USDA says
For its part, the USDA says the rule would close what it called a loophole that allows states to make participants receiving minimal benefits, or welfare, automatically eligible to participate in the food stamp program.
Those benefits are often nominal. The USDA says benefits may be as minimal as simply providing a household with an informational brochure describing social services or access to hotline numbers, and are often given without conducting other eligibility determinations, such as income and asset levels.
In announcing the rule, the USDA cited the example of a Minnesota millionaire who successfully enrolled in the SNAP program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money. That millionaire, Rob Undersander, received food stamp benefits for 19 months by using an eligibility loophole that did not check his assets.
A report prepared for the USDA in 2008 found that even then, while a large majority of income-eligible households had low levels of countable assets, more than 5% had more than $50,000 in countable assets. As U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) observed, one in five income-eligible households had more than $100,000 in assets.
Perdue says the new proposal would give the USDA the ability to save billions of dollars, while ensuring that nutrition assistance programs are delivered with consistency and integrity to those most in need.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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