It’s the little things.
While pundits gnash their teeth over President Donald Trump’s latest tweets, his administration has quietly proposed kicking three million people off the federal food stamp program.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue says the proposal to amend the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which helps about 527,000 people in Kentucky — will close a loophole that allows people with too many assets to receive food stamps. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., 68% of Kentucky’s recipients are families with children, and 38 percent are elderly or people with disabilities.
According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Kentucky could lose slightly less than 8 percent of its SNAP recipients — about 40,000 people.
Like all bureaucratic maneuvering, the proposal is complicated. In Kentucky, means testing for food stamps is two-pronged. First, people are judged for income, which can’t be above 130 percent of the federal definition of poverty, roughly $33,500 a year for a family of four, or about $16,200 for an individual.
They are also judged on assets, including the value of cars, and bank or retirement accounts. Figuring out the asset threshold is extremely time-consuming and cumbersome, for the people applying and for the state workers who must try to figure it out. That’s why in 2000, the federal Farm Bill allowed states to adopt something called “categorical eligibility.” This rule gave people access to food stamps if they already received benefits from other low-income programs such as kinship care or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They still had to meet the income threshold, but the cumbersome process of figuring out assets could be skipped.
States like Kentucky adopted the new rules because “it was going to make more families eligible and it was far far easier to administer,” said Jason Dunn, who worked at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for many years. He’s now a policy analyst with Kentucky Voices for Health.
“I spent a lot of time asking for proof of your $350 in the bank,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of effort that people had to go through to obtain that information and process it.”
The other effect is that people might spend that $350 they’d saved for emergencies in order to qualify.
“This new rule seems to go against that understanding that you don’t want people to hit rock bottom to get benefits,” Dunn said.
Purdue tried attaching a similar move to the federal Farm Bill last year, but Congress rejected it So the Trump administration moved to regulatory fiat. Purdue said it could save $2.5 billion a year out of the most recent farm bill ... of $687 billion.
It seems like a lot of effort to claw back 0.3 percent of the farm bill just to punish poor people. At the same time, Trump’s tax bill is going to cost $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years. That’s the tax bill that greatly benefits the rich, without much help to the middle and lower class, furthering heightening economic disparities in this country.
Here’s how little sense it makes. The tax bill certainly benefits Walmart, one of America’s largest employers, which got so big by charging less and paying so much less that Walmart employees use about $6.2 billion in public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid, according to a 2014 report. So public policy is now going to further reward Walmart with the new tax bill and further punish its workers by possibly taking away food stamp benefits. Currently 40 percent of all SNAP recipients work, but still earn little enough to qualify for food stamps.
On top of this proposal, the Trump administration is also proposing a change in the way the U.S. defines poverty, which would place many beyond public assistance.
Atlantic writer Adam Serwer coined the phrase “The cruelty is the point,” to describe numerous aspects of the Trump administration, from immigration policy that separates parents and children to the Muslim ban. What’s most confusing is that in Kentucky at least, this cruelty that would take a small sliver of the federal budget away from our most vulnerable citizens, who are trying to survive in one of the country’s poorest states. Are we not better than this?