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What Did They Say…Or Do?

 

July 24, 2019

When Congress passed the Farm Bill last year, a collective sigh of relief was exhaled by recipients and supporters of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for food stamps. SNAP makes up a significant portion of the Farm Bill.

After much debate last year, and despite the passage of a House bill that called for stringent funding cuts to SNAP, Congressional leaders ultimately decided to leave SNAP largely untouched. However, the legislation did leave the proverbial door open for the administration to require states to adhere to certain restrictions and requirements for program eligibility. One of the most common ones was to require able-bodied recipients to work more in order to continue receiving benefits.

On Tuesday, July 23, 2019, the federal Department of Agriculture announced it would pursue a rule that would place further restrictions on who could receive SNAP benefits.

According to the Agriculture Department, more than 40 states presently allow people who are receiving welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, to automatically receive SNAP funds. The implication here is that a thorough review process doesn’t take place to determine if individuals who are receiving TANF really need SNAP benefits.

Also, states, which administer the SNAP program through customized versions, are currently able to raise income eligibility limits so that people living in high-cost states, for example, aren’t stripped of their benefits. The rules would require states to follow strict income and asset limits for eligibility.

Sonny Perdue, secretary of the Agriculture Department, described it this way:

“Some states are taking advantage of loopholes that allow people to receive the SNAP benefits who would otherwise not qualify and for which they are not entitled.”

Another department official, Acting Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps, gave an example of one of those loopholes.

“Unfortunately, automatic eligibility has expanded to allow even millionaires and others who simply receive a TANF-funded brochure to become eligible for SNAP when they clearly don’t need it,” Lipps said.

One of those millionaires, a Minnesota man named Rob Undersander, said he received SNAP benefits despite having a big bank account and real estate investments.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said after meeting with Mr. Undersander, it became clear to him that “reform (of SNAP) is certainly needed.”

However, other lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), criticized the measure.

“The administration’s latest act of staggering callousness would steal food off the table of working families and hungry children and dismantle proven pathways out of poverty for millions. The administration’s proposal is both cruel and counterproductive.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also described the proposal as “cruel, ideological, and inhumane.”

From Islamic Relief USA’s perspective, it’s indefensible to strip assistance from individuals who would otherwise go hungry. Whenever some “rule change” is pursued instead of legislation to address an issue, it gives us pause because it looks like a backdoor way to push through something that lacks sufficient approval from the Legislative Branch.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), who worked closely with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) last year to garner significant bipartisan support for the Farm Bill, echoed that sentiment.

“[This] is yet another attempt by this administration to circumvent Congress and make harmful changes to nutrition assistance that have been repeatedly rejected on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals, and make it harder for states to administer food assistance.”

On the other hand, it also is inappropriate, if not fraudulent, to assume someone is eligible for a particular government assistance program without going through a thorough review process of the recipients’ needs. Several residents who took the time out to apply for these benefits get denied, presumably because of the merits of their application. In light of that, the thought of someone “automatically” receiving benefits, especially if it’s not merited, is unconscionable.

The anecdote cited by Mr. Lipps and Congressman Meadows about the millionaire receiving SNAP benefits is no doubt an egregious example of how a program’s approval process is flawed. It’s those types of examples that some conservative lawmakers frequently cite to justify their calls for government program cuts.

But such a broad extrapolation is misleading, as there are still millions of residents who’re truly in need of assistance. Denying them that help by making it more burdensome to become eligible for assistance — largely because a few have gamed the system — is cruel, insensitive and severely undercuts the magnitude of the problem. Also, to use a one-size-fits-all approach (or in this case, a one-income-fits-all approach) to determining eligibility is seemingly unfair, since the costs of living vary greatly between states in different regions.

While there’s no way of knowing right now whether this rule change is justifiable, as it will be reviewed over the next several weeks, IRUSA wants to make sure the most vulnerable populations don’t continue to suffer the consequences because of the actions of a few.