Governors, mayors, attorneys general, state delegations, teachers and pediatricians have flooded the Agriculture Department with comments that overwhelmingly oppose the Trump administration’s proposed rule to limit eligibility for food stamps — and cut millions from the nation’s pre-eminent food assistance program.
The rule change’s public comment period ended on Monday, with more than 75,000 comments logged, 70 from mayors and 17 from governors. Congressional delegations from Vermont, Maryland and Maine also voiced opposition to changing eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The department will next have to sift through the public comments and “consider potential changes from the proposal in crafting the final rule,” the U.S.D.A. said in a statement, adding, “We do not currently have a projected completion date.”
It could well move forward with the change. Other proposed regulations from the Trump administration have gone into force despite torrents of negative comments. The Agriculture Department pushed through changes to the nutritional standards of school meals over the objections of more than 85,000 public commenters. The “public charge” rule, which could deny visas or green cards to immigrants who access public assistance, received more than 266,000 comments in opposition but was finalized anyway. And 800,000 comments opposing a loosening of the Endangered Species Act did not stop it from going into effect in August.
In this case, the Agriculture Department says it is merely moving to close a loophole that has allowed people with higher incomes and assets to receive unneeded food assistance.
The department was changing the rules to prevent “abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement in July when the proposal was released.
The Agriculture Department’s own analysis estimated that more than three million people would lose their benefits and 500,000 children would lose access to free school meals if the government moved forward with tightening a rule that now offers families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families automatic eligibility for food stamps, even if they have higher incomes and asset accumulation. The rule the department seeks to change allows people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — and more than $3,500 in assets to receive food stamps.
Nearly 40 million people participated in food stamps in 2018. The Census Bureau noted recently in its annual report on income and poverty that food stamps kept 3.1 million people, including 1.3 million children, out of poverty in 2018.
Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group, said the current rule “helps working poor families accumulate modest assets for a rainy day” and encourages them to take on more hours or higher wages without worrying about losing assistance. She was not surprised by the negative response.
“I think this proposal has really struck a chord with people, and the outcry against it has been swift and loud,” Ms. Davis said.
Although most of the comments opposed the rule change, some spoke up for it. “As a taxpayer, I would like to see stronger eligibility requirements,” Heidi Geschwill wrote in a public comment, identifying herself as a citizen. “It is outrageous to read that a millionaire is somehow eligible!”
But social service professionals expressed clear concern about a ripple effect as families are pushed off the food-stamp rolls. Children who live in households that receive food assistance are automatically eligible for free school meals. If the proposed rule is finalized, many children would lose meals at home and at school.
And that could impact other school services. School nutrition directors expressed concern that if the number of children who are automatically eligible for free school meals decreased, their schools would, on paper, appear richer because the number of students deemed to be poor in the school would decrease. That would jeopardize school access to other social welfare programs, not only free school meals but also educational resources that are tied to the number of children receiving those meals.
“It upsets me to no end, especially when you’re talking about my kids,” said Robert Lewis, director of nutrition services at the El Monte School District, in California, which serves 9,000 students. “I hate to even imagine even a portion of those kids not being able to have food.”
The Urban Institute, using data from another Washington research firm, Mathematica, estimated that the rule change would purge 3.6 million people from the food stamps program. About one million people in households with children would have incomes considered too high for eligibility. Another one million would have too many assets.
Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement submitted to the Agriculture Department that the proposed rule “would cause serious harm to millions of low-income families who would have an even harder time making ends meet and putting food on the table.”
Expansive food stamp rolls have been an issue before. Conservatives have long held that the program has become too large and too open to abuse, and that lax eligibility rules were leading to government dependency.
But on several occasions, Congress has decided against limiting eligibility, the last time in the 2018 Farm Bill. House Republicans had moved to strip nearly two million Americans of food stamps benefits, but a coalition of urban Democrats and farm-state Republicans prevailed, as they had other times.
Ellen Vollinger, the food stamp director at the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group, accused the Trump administration of trying to “do through rule-making what Congress had already said no to.”
“We don’t think that they have a very good basis to be doing this given the legislative history,” she said.