VERMONT — It’s ironic that an administration, which has given huge, unnecessary tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires and plays fast and loose with so many laws, rules, facts and norms, wants to end food stamp benefits for 3 million Americans, including thousands of Vermont families.
On July 23, the Trump administration proposed changing how the food stamp program — known nationwide as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and called 3SquaresVT here in Vermont — has been running for more than 20 years.
In addition to Vermont, 39 states now let working families enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to access food stamps. In other words, these working families need financial assistance help but have incomes that exceed the federal guidelines to qualify for food stamps. But since large expenses, such as child care and housing, eat up most of their paychecks, these working families find themselves without enough money left over to buy the food they need. On paper, they’re too “wealthy” for food assistance. Now, that’s a rock and a hard place.
But 40 states have seen it right to build a bridge allowing families whose incomes are exhausted by expenses to enroll in SNAP. And they’ve done so for years.
But that’s a “loophole” that skirts SNAP guidelines, the federal government says.
Conservatives rail against the nation’s food stamp program and Congress last year tried to curtail it but it failed in the Senate. In rolling out the Trump administration proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said states “have misused this flexibility without restraint.” The change would save the federal government $2.5 billion, according to Perdue.
“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.
A loophole? Perhaps. An abuse? Hardly. These are families teetering on a fence: They work, but what’s left of their paychecks isn’t enough to pay the expenses that allow them to keep working. Call it what you will, but this “loophole” places a net where safety is needed.
The Vermont Department of Children and Families estimates 5,204 households will lose their SNAP eligibility. That is 13 percent of SNAP’s caseload in Vermont and equates to more than $7.5 million in annual benefits. The changes would affect 4,600 Vermont children who would no longer be eligible for free and reduced school lunches.
Food insecurity experts — such as the executive directors of the Vermont Food Bank and Hunger Free Vermont — call how the program has been administered here and in most states “broad-based categorical eligibility.”
“Categorical eligibility helps 3SquaresVT reach households that are working and may have slightly higher incomes but significant expenses (such as high housing costs, out of pocket medical expenses, and child care costs), or while working and saving a few thousand dollars for expenses like increased heating costs in the winter or a security deposit on an apartment,” John Sayles of the Food Bank and Anore Horton of Hunger Free Vermont wrote in a recent op-ed. “It makes 3SquaresVT even more effective and responsive to the needs of food insecure Vermonters, and is used by most states in the U.S. All of these households still need to apply and meet the same requirements as anyone else in order to receive benefits.”
This year, one in four Vermonters will visit a food pantry or rely on other assistance to feed their families. This number is far greater than those who are eligible for 3SquaresVT, write Sayles and Horton. This “highlights that these programs already don’t do enough to eliminate hunger for many working families.”
Penalizing struggling working families for retaining meager assets is foolish and cruel. It will create a poorer and sicker nation and take money out of the economy, hurting business.
In formulating the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill, Congress considered and rejected such a rule change. It used to be a conservative principle that those closest to a problem were best equipped to evaluate it. Here, however, we see the federal government attempting to interfere in state efforts to take care of their own residents.
We are now in a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule change that ends on Sept. 23. The Vermont Food Bank and Hunger Free Vermont will be launching and participating in a broad advocacy campaign to preserve 3SquaresVT. Right now, those wishing to can submit comments through the website of the Food Research and Action Center at frac.org.
This editorial first appeared in the The Brattleboro Reformer, Aug. 8.