Advocates decry Trump administration plan to rein in food stamp access

People who get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would no longer be automatically eligible for food stamp, or SNAP, benefits under a proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

WASHINGTON – Arizona is one of the 43 states that could be affected by a Trump administration proposal to tighten restrictions on access to food stamps for people receiving other financial assistance.

The Department of Agriculture said the rule, to be released Wednesday for public comment, would close a “loophole” in current policy that makes those getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families automatically eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The change would require TANF recipients to show that they separately qualify for SNAP benefits, a move the department estimates could affect 3.1 million food stamp recipients in the U.S. while saving billions of dollars.

The impact on Arizona is unclear, but advocates said they expect the change would hit the working poor and people on fixed incomes hardest.

“The types of people that are going to be affected are going to be predominantly people with income,” said Angie Rodgers, CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks. “The working-but-poor individuals that might work at low wages or not have enough hours for full-time employment, and for seniors on fixed incomes like Social Security.”

Arizona had 810,525 recipients on SNAP in June of which 365,894, or about 45%, were children, according to the most recent numbers from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. DES said there were 13,253 TANF recipients last month, of which 10,992 were children.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a news release Tuesday that the automatic eligibility has been used as a loophole by states that administer the SNAP program to “bypass important eligibility guidelines.”

“Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Perdue’s statement said. “The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity … That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

Perdue said that under current rules, some people who get as little as a flier in the mail with information on TANF benefits can be considered eligible for SNAP in some states. Under the proposal, a household would have to get at least $50 in TANF benefits a month for at least six months before being considered eligible for SNAP, or get noncash benefits that include subsidized employment, work support or child care.

The Arizona DES said Tuesday that it does not comment on proposals for rules or rule changes. But Rodgers estimated that the rule could impact as many as 30,000 people in Arizona.

Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the changes would make it harder for the poor and working poor to make ends meet.

“Instead of punishing working families if they work more hours or penalizing seniors and people with disabilities who save for emergencies, the President should seek to assist them with policies that help them afford the basics and save for the future,” Dean said in a prepared statement.

But the Agriculture Department argues that the proposal could save billions of dollars and protect SNAP, ensuring that “benefits go toward Americans most in need.”

That argument did not resonate with Arizona Democrats. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said in a tweet that the proposal “takes food off the tables of hungry American families,” while Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called it another Republican favor to wealthy taxpayers.

“While the GOP gave tax breaks to the wealthy & corporations with the #GOPTaxScam, they are taking food off the table for America’s working families,” Grijalva tweeted. “This means more food insecurity and poorer health outcomes for millions of vulnerable families.”

The proposed rule is scheduled to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment for 60 days.