It’s time to SNAP into action

Last month, I had the absolute delight of having all my grandchildren under the same roof for a few days. Their laughter, their sweet curiosity, their silly games … all of it just brightened the mood around the house. We took time to play and share stories, and I remember thinking, I should write a column on the benefits of togetherness, family and self-care.

Well, folks, that was the goal. But the Trump administration threw a wrench in my “Top five ways to find joy this month” column idea, so you’re now going to see the “Top five reasons the president shouldn’t bypass Congress by taking away SNAP benefits” column.

Because I don’t feel like writing about my own joy when three million Americans are about to lose their access to food.

The long and short of it: The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new plan to make it harder for people to qualify for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That is another case of the Trump administration — this time Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue — attempting to change a technical rule behind the scenes so they can subvert Congress.

Their plan is to eliminate a technical, but important, policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” a move that would be detrimental to the health and well-being of millions.

Why is it a bad idea? Here are the top five reasons:

Reason #5: Ending broad-based categorical eligibility puts families in dangerous positions. Broad-based categorical eligibility, which has been upheld by Congress and previous administrations for over two decades, lets states soften the public assistance “cliff effect.” The cliff — when a household suddenly loses a lot of assistance as soon as their income goes up — is made less steep when states use the categorical eligibility rule to increase the maximum income or asset limit for receiving SNAP. That smooths things out for families whose incomes hover around 130% of the poverty line ($27,729 for a family of three). So, instead of losing SNAP benefits the minute Mom gets a 50-cent raise, families keep their benefits as long as they’re still eligible for other programs. Under the new rule, however, Mom would actually be penalized for earning a bit more money.

Reason #4: The current plan encourages and rewards work. If we take away SNAP benefits the minute someone gets ahead in the workplace — Mom’s income going from $12.50 an hour to $13, so by no means a windfall promotion — then the SNAP program punishes work for families slightly above 130% of the poverty line rather than encouraging and rewarding it. Remember, those working families are considered “low income” and most likely still have tight budgets and difficulty paying their bills.

Reason #3: Changing the rules punishes families for building up savings. Right now, 40% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense. Setting aside money for the future is one of the fundamental steps on a path to financial independence. The Trump administration wants to take SNAP away from families who have begun moving in that direction by securing a certain amount of assets. But, when parents are forced to choose between saving money for the future and feeding their children tonight, they’ll choose the latter. And they’ll be right to do so.

Reason #2: More red tape. For an administration that looks down its nose at “big government,” the people on Trump’s team sure like to create more bureaucratic red tape. As with Medicaid work requirements, this rule would mean more paperwork for government employees and those who should be enrolled in the program. The current system efficiently enrolls folks in SNAP if they qualify for other programs, rather than requiring additional hoops to jump through. Under the change, people who are struggling financially would have to deal with additional forms and systems just to be able to access nutritious food. And state caseworkers, already overburdened, would have to track and update all of that information.

Reason #1: Half a million kids may lose their access to free and reduced-price school lunch. Yes. I’m serious. Under the current rule, states can automatically enroll children in free or reduced-price school lunch if their families are SNAP recipients. If the new proposal goes through, those families would need to apply for free or reduced-price school lunch separately, and many will likely fall through the cracks and lose out. It’s bad enough that we have people who want to take children away from their parents over a $10 lunch debt, but, now, the federal government wants to make it harder for kids to get a nutritious meal as they try to meet increasingly challenging educational standards.

So, rather than rewarding work and helping people save their money, this administration seeks to penalize hardworking families. Rather than fueling kids with good food to help them find success in school, this administration wants to burden their parents with more paperwork. Government should focus on lifting people up, not kicking them when they’re down.

I’m urging you to comment on this dangerous proposal today. It just takes a few minutes to let the Trump administration know you oppose making it harder for kids and families to get food. Let’s take care of each other, friends.

Gilda Z. Jacobs is president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.