Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2019. On Wednesday, the Trump administration adopted a new policy that will restrict states’ abilities to exempt certain able-bodied adults without children from work requirements. The rule, which will go into effect next April, will force about 700,000 people to lose their food assistance benefits known as SNAP, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they meet certain work, school or job-training requirements.
According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, about 895 people across five counties and the Ute Mountain Tribe would no longer be eligible for work-requirement waivers for SNAP benefits under the rule change. An earlier estimate from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy says the potential impact could be much greater. In 2016, about 41,000 Coloradans were in the able-bodied, but work-exempted category, CCLP notes, and should an economic downturn hit, many could lose benefits because the state will have less flexibility in granting them waivers.
Most people in this category are homeless or belong to other at-risk populations — those with felony convictions, substance abuse problems and housing and transportation problems.
As this story also reports, the work requirements are only one of several changes the Trump administration is considering to restrict access to food assistance. The food stamp program, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Wednesday “was never intended to be a way of life.”
Democratic members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation on Thursday assailed the work-requirement rule change.
“SNAP is one of the most effective tools for reducing food insecurity and combatting poverty. This move will put more Americans at risk of hunger and will hurt communities across the country,” Sen. Michael Bennet said in a statement.
The announcement this week “showcases this Administration’s complete and devastating disregard for the health and well-being of millions of Americans,” Rep. Joe Neguse wrote on Twitter. “SNAP is the country’s most effective anti-hunger initiatives and one we must protect.”
This summer, the Trump administration proposed a change to how families in need receive food assistance benefits. The change, which would make it harder to qualify for help, would mean about 3.1 million people nationwide would see their monthly food assistance eliminated. In Colorado, about 33,000 people, including 11,000 children, would lose benefits, with more being disqualified down the road, according to the state Department of Human Services.
The great majority of families now qualifying for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have children in school and that means they automatically receive free school lunches. If the SNAP benefits go, so, too, does the automatic qualification for free lunches. About half of families could reapply for free lunches, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis. The other half no longer qualify, but could apply for reduced-price lunches.
So far, nearly 20,000 people have responded on the administration’s plan to tighten eligibility and the comments are largely along this vein:
“We need the Snap program now more than ever as the inequality between the wealthy and poorest amongst us keeps growing every year. We are only as strong as the weakest amongst us…”
“Do you even wonder how it looks… Give a huge tax break to the rich and take away food stamps for people in need… You are unbelievable. Are you run by demons? Who can go to church after giving more to the rich… And take away from the poor. I missed that part of the bible.”
“This is absolutely abhorrent!! How can you even contemplate starving the elderly and children. SHAME ON YOU!!! We are the richest country in the world and this ridiculous administration wants to punish the elderly and children.”
The proposed change is among five the administration has pushed so far this year — none of which have been enacted — that target the $65 billion SNAP program in the name of promoting self-sufficiency, reducing fraud and achieving more consistent implementation from state to state.
A spokesperson for the USDA, which administers SNAP, would not comment on why the administration has pushed so many changes that affect food assistance, instead he pointed to the reasoning for each. (You can find that reasoning in the blurbs at the bottom of this story.)
Policy analysts, state administrations and advocates say it’s difficult to determine precisely how many Coloradans could be affected were all the changes to be adopted, but “the common thread is that they all cut food benefits people struggling to afford the basics,” said Anya Rose, a policy analyst with Hunger Free Colorado. And, she adds, they all reduce state flexibility in administering food assistance.
Most of the SNAP recipients in Colorado are families with children — about 70% — with the average family receiving about $420 per month in 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And 28% of families have a member who is elderly or disabled.
“Big picture — and it’s so easy for all this to get lost in the noise of the Trump administration, particularly now — is that they seem to be targeting poor people and immigrants. It’s not just SNAP, it’s all across the administration,” said Terri Livermore, policy director for LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit focused on providing access to healthy food and physical activity. “They are saying this will increase self-sufficiency and people’s capacity to get back to work faster. But the reality is that we know it will achieve the opposite effect. It will actually have a net negative.”
Conservatives long have argued that public benefits sap initiative and the 2018 Farm Bill was held up over fierce debate around work requirements last year. The Colorado Independent reached out to the The Independence Institute — a Colorado-based libertarian think-tank — as well as Colorado’s Senate Republicans, the Colorado GOP, and Rep. Doug Lamborn for comment on the proposed changes. All declined or didn’t respond.
The most significant change, the one drawing so much fire in public comments, would no longer allow automatic qualification for food assistance if a family’s income is low enough to qualify for cash public assistance. The other proposed changes would affect how a household calculates its utility costs (which then affects income thresholds for qualifying); set stricter work requirements and restrict states’ ability to issue exemptions to those requirements; and adjust how the poverty level is determined. A fifth change comes out of the Department of Homeland Security. Called the public charge rule, it would allow for denial of visas and permanent lawful status to applicants the agency believes might end up relying on public benefits. (Undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving public benefits.)
The administration is proposing changes that were debated and struck from the Farm Bill, which eventually was passed with bipartisan support in Congress, Kate Kasper, policy director for Hunger Free Colorado, pointed out.
“This is a way to try to get proposals that the government, Congress, the people, don’t support to become actual rules,” she said.
Charissa Becker, 30, is a single mother of three who has relied on SNAP off-and-on since she was 18. She said her house-cleaning income isn’t enough to support her Denver family, and she needs SNAP to ensure her kids are fed. She now receives about $400 a month in benefits, she said, and qualifying has become harder even as rent prices in Denver climb higher and higher.
Becker said she hasn’t been following the ins and outs of the proposed changes, but believes that in general, “people on SNAP are treated as though they just want to abuse the program to get free money.”
Proposals that would cut the program are bogus, Becker said, and put people into “horrible” situations.
“I’ve just been trying to work hard to try to establish some type of foundation for my children, so that we don’t have to be on it forever,” Becker said.
Colorado already faces a problem of under-enrollment in SNAP, Rose said, with an average of about 60% of qualified people applying for the program statewide. Enrollment rates vary by county, with Mineral and Hinsdale Counties at 22% in 2016, and Las Animas County at 97%.
The average SNAP recipient might not know about these proposals, Kasper said, and would suddenly see their benefits disappear.
“We would probably see a lot of confusion among SNAP recipients who were previously able to receive benefits… and then all of the sudden their benefits get cut,” Kasper said.
Becker said that if her benefits were cut she would be forced to turn to food banks and work more hours. Her children already spend much of their time at school, she said, and losing SNAP would cut into the little time they have together.
“I would basically go home, feed them dinner and put them to sleep,” she said.
Lynne Telford, CEO of the Care and Share Food Bank, estimates that 6,400 new people would need assistance through the food bank. Care and Share, which serves southern Colorado, is already helping as many people as it can, she said, and she doesn’t know if it can meet the increased demand.
“We don’t know how we can, but we will continue to try,” Telford said.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser signed on to a comment letter on Sept. 23, opposing the BBCE proposal.
“This proposed rule will harm Colorado, our public health, and our local economy. It will cause undue burden on our state in administrative costs and other programmatic costs, and will have consequences across our communities, causing greater food insecurity for many vulnerable Coloradans,” Weiser wrote in a statement to The Colorado Independent.
Here’s a snapshot of the proposals:
Broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE)
This, again, is the biggest proposed change, affecting 1.7 million households or 3.1 million individuals. It would change eligibility requirements for some who receive SNAP benefits.
Currently, states are allowed to grant SNAP eligibility to families who already receive federal assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or other programs funded by TANF. Broad-based categorical eligibility, as it’s known, makes it easier for families to receive and states to administer food assistance programs. The administration said eligibility requirements from state-to-state are, basically, all over the map, and that it wants more uniformity. Such a change, the department said, will reduce federal benefit spending by more than $9 billion over the next five years, but also will raise state and federal administrative costs by $2.3 billion in that time.
Under the proposed rule, families will need to prove they have received at least $50 a month in TANF benefits for six consecutive months in order to automatically receive food assistance benefits as well.
About 7% of a total of 456,000 Coloradans who used SNAP, as of July of this year, could be kicked off the program with the new eligibility requirements, including 11,000 children, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. More would be unable to apply for benefits down the road.
BBCE allows low-income families and elderly people to save for emergency situations, Karla Maraccini, division director of Food and Energy Assistance for Colorado DHS, said. With more income going toward families’ food budget, Maraccini pointed out, less money can be set aside for unexpected bills.
“We know many low-income families can’t afford a $400 dollar emergency without going into debt or utilizing other, more costly, services. This would make it more difficult for those families to save for the future,” she said.
This is the most recent proposed rule and it would set a new national standard for utility deductions, which the USDA estimates would cut benefits for 40% of Colorado SNAP recipients based on data from 2017. Nationally, the average household would see a reduction of about $31 per month in benefits.
The change is open for public comment until Dec. 2.
Introduced Feb. 1, this proposed rule would limit states’ ability to exempt some adults from the SNAP work requirements, something the 2018 Farm Bill left untouched. The new rule would require a 7% unemployment rate in an area before states could issue exemptions, and lower the total percentage of adults who can be exempted from work requirements.
In 2016, an estimated 41,000 people were in the work-exempted category, according to The Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Most were homeless and at-risk populations — those with felony convictions, substance abuse problems and housing and transportation problems. Most of these individuals would lose access their benefits should this change go through, CCLP estimates.
This rule, proposed by the Office of Management and Budget in May, would change how the poverty threshold is calculated. Any change in that calculation would impact who qualifies for food assistance as well as for other federal safety-net programs.
The new tools may measure inflation more slowly, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which would underestimate the actual cost of living for low-income families.
The change would cause more than 200,000 people nationwide to lose SNAP benefits over 10 years, according to the CBPP.
Back in September 2018, the Department of Homeland Security introduced a rule requiring that immigrants applying for visas and green cards prove that they will not rely on public benefits like SNAP.
Critics of the proposal say it may have a “chilling effect,” meaning people who are qualified to receive federal benefits may choose to stop receiving them to protect their immigration status.
The public charge rule was blocked by judges on Oct. 11, after being slated to take effect Oct. 15. The U.S. Department of State also delayed the rule from taking effect this week, putting it up for public comment until Nov. 12.
Tina Griego contributed to this story.
The Colorado Independent’s coverage of health equity issues is underwritten by LiveWell Colorado. In accordance with The Independent’s editorial independence policy, underwriters have no control over story selection or content.