By Allison Yates-Berg

How many kids should go hungry to prevent someone from getting food stamps they don’t “deserve?” 

This summer, while volunteering to help the elderly apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a retired Minnesota millionaire decided to apply for SNAP himself to see if he could “game” the system. He qualified for the program and began receiving $300-a-month in benefits–and then went public to call out the failures of the SNAP program that let this happen. The news caught on immediately, with headlines such as: Are millionaires able to receive food stamps? 

Unfortunately, this story made its way from the news to the policy arena–with some policymakers eager to make a strong programmatic change. By the end of July, the USDA proposed closing the supposed “loophole” via a rule change to broad-based categorical eligibility. Under broad-based categorical eligibility, participants can become “categorically” eligible for SNAP based on receipt or qualification of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. This allows states to lift the income eligibility level for SNAP and adopt less restrictive asset tests.

The USDA is proposing a rule change that would essentially eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility. With this rule change, it is estimated that 3 million individuals will lose SNAP and over a half a million children will lose access to the free school lunch program, as SNAP automatically qualifies children for that program. In sum, the millionaire may be dissuaded from applying under the rule change, but at what cost to Americans who live in poverty?

We at ideas42 believe that not only will this rule change hurt families, it will also further increase the hassles and costs to administer these programs. Eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility violates three of the evidence-based policies put forward in Poverty Interrupted:

  • It increases the costs to families and staff by inserting additional eligibility hurdles 
  • It reduces families’ financial slack by making it nearly impossible for families to save 
  • It was born out of a narrative of someone gaming the system, but will systematically hurt and disempower those actually in need

Instead, we ask the USDA to focus their efforts on further aligning and expanding programs like SNAP, TANF, WIC, and free lunches so that families do not continue to bear the high costs of poverty and can be supported on their path to economic well-being.

You can read more about our position in the comment we submitted to the USDA (in which we also point out some government sludge making it hard for the public to meaningfully comment on the rule change).