The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing a rule that would require some states to reduce gross income limits for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants. It also would force 42 states, including Alabama, to impose resource limits on applicants.
More than 3 million people would become ineligible for food assistance under the rule, federal officials estimate. Alabama Arise policy analyst Carol Gundlach submitted the following comments in opposition to this proposal:
Re: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) [FNS–2018–0037]
Dear Program Design Branch:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on behalf of Alabama Arise in response to the proposed changes to the categorical eligibility state option in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Organizational purpose and interest
Alabama Arise is a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes. Arise believes acts of charity are vital, but they are not enough. We also must work to improve harmful policies. Arise provides a structure through which Alabamians can engage in public debates with the goal of improving the welfare of all Alabamians.
Arise envisions an Alabama where all people have resources and opportunities to reach their potential to live happy, productive lives, and each successive generation is ensured a secure and healthy future. We envision an Alabama where all government leaders are responsive, inclusive and justice-serving, and the people are engaged in the policy-making process. And we envision an Alabama where all people live with concern for the common good and respect for the humanity of every person.
Arise has engaged actively in advocacy to improve access to SNAP assistance since our origin. In recent years, Arise has opposed state legislation restricting Alabama’s use of broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) and imposing other restrictions on Alabama’s election of state options. Arise staff participated in both formal and informal discussions and meetings with representatives of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (the state’s SNAP administrating agency), the Alabama Food Bank Association, and Alabama Legal Services and other organizations to improve state-level SNAP policy, staff training, outreach and client notices. Most recently, Arise and the Alabama Food Bank Association have spearheaded the creation of a Hunger Free Alabama advocacy coalition representing more than 20 diverse organizations and agencies.
Categorical eligibility has made SNAP more efficient in Alabama
Alabama has made limited but effective use of broad-based categorical eligibility. The state has elected to eliminate the SNAP assets test for applicants found to be categorically eligible because they received a non-cash benefit under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Alabama has not elected to increase the income eligibility limits for participants who are not seniors or people with disabilities.
By eliminating the assets test, Alabama has ensured that food-insecure seniors and people with disabilities can receive SNAP assistance without being driven into even deeper poverty. This move also has ensured that working people in poverty can receive both nutrition services and work supports. And it has helped SNAP operate economically and efficiently in a state that struggles to support basic human services adequately.
These changes would harm seniors and people with disabilities
The proposed categorical eligibility regulation revision would increase hunger among seniors and Alabamians with disabilities. Seniors in Alabama often maintain savings accounts to cover funeral expenses so these costs will not burden their children. Additionally, many seniors and individuals with disabilities wisely save money to pay for unexpected medical or long-term care expenses.
Elimination of broad-based categorical eligibility would force seniors and people with disabilities to spend down their hard-saved safety net. When faced with a medical crisis, many may have to forgo essential nutrition assistance or suffer other devastating consequences.
These changes would increase transportation barriers
The proposed categorical eligibility regulation revision also would increase hunger among working families. Alabama is a deeply rural state where workers or students commonly travel 30 miles or more to employment or job training. Alabama also lacks public transportation options in much of the state, particularly in rural areas. Because of the state’s rural nature and lack of public transportation, reliable transportation is essential for working people.
Thanks to BBCE, Alabama and most other states have not treated automobiles as countable assets in determining SNAP eligibility for many years. But under the proposed rule, the state could be forced again to count the value of certain cars in excess of $4,650 as an asset. Because so few states treat automobiles as an asset, officials have not adjusted the federal exemption for cars since 1977. The amount is now so low that most moderately price cars would exceed the allowable exemption.
Counting the “excess” value of cars as an asset would force families to choose between necessary transportation and food assistance. This is a choice that would force them into deeper poverty.
These changes would harm Alabama’s children
The proposed categorical eligibility regulation revision would reduce access to school meals for hungry children. Alabama, like nearly every other state, automatically enrolls children living in SNAP households for free school meals. Should these changes be approved, Alabama estimates approximately 4.5% of households, or more than 15,000 families, will lose SNAP benefits.
Insofar as these households include children, those children also would be denied automatic eligibility for free school breakfast and lunch. It is true that officials can establish a child’s eligibility for free meals by a separate application. But if these changes occur, many families who were automatically determined eligible in the past may be unaware they would have to apply for their children’s meals and may fail to do so.
Breakfast and lunch at school are closely correlated with better educational outcomes. A loss of free school meals will both increase child hunger and reduce school performance among the most at-risk children.
These changes would harm struggling families across Alabama
The proposed regulation would force Alabama to choose between weakening its already insufficient TANF program and denying nutrition assistance to thousands of currently eligible families. The proposed rule defines TANF benefits that would confer categorical eligibility for SNAP as “ongoing and substantial benefits.” This would be restricted largely to cash benefits, child care, subsidized employment and work supports funded through the TANF block grant.
Alabama has one of the nation’s lowest benefit limits for TANF cash assistance: just $215 for a family of three. In 2018, only 8,565 families in Alabama received ongoing TANF cash assistance. Facing the declining value of the TANF block grant, Alabama has elected to use TANF funds for one-time emergency assistance. This includes housing and transportation assistance, short-term work supports and other services for struggling families who are ineligible for ongoing cash assistance but still face critical needs.
The proposed rule would deny these families the benefits of categorical eligibility. The TANF assistance they receive would not meet the proposed definition of “ongoing” assistance, even though the dollar value of the assistance they receive may be many times Alabama’s maximum monthly TANF cash assistance amount. This definition of TANF assistance is arbitrary, and it could deny SNAP to many of Alabama’s poorest residents.
These changes would add unnecessary strain to state budgets
The proposed categorical eligibility regulation revision would impose administrative burdens on Alabama and other states. Alabama estimates that 81% of its SNAP caseload, or 275,000 households, would be subject to asset testing under the proposed rule. The state also estimates that 15,000 of those households would be denied SNAP assistance because they either have assets that exceed the limit or would be unable to verify the value of their assets.
Alabama would have to verify assets for all 275,000 households, which would cost considerable time and money. It is unknown whether officials could obtain verification of cash assets easily, especially given changes in the banking industry since Alabama last had to do so. Officials also could struggle to verify the value of real property held by multiple heirs of the original owner, a common situation in the rural South.
Because verification costs are an administrative expense, Alabama would have to cover 50% of those costs. Should the proposed rule’s verification requirements force Alabama to contract with a third party, those state costs may be considerable. This additional red tape could reduce the state’s ability to provide innovative services, including employment and training services. It also could increase the risk of delays in timely approval of SNAP applications.
Other major problems with the proposed changes
The proposed categorical eligibility regulation revision would place an increased burden on emergency food providers. Alabama estimates that 4.5% of its SNAP caseload, or 15,000 households, would be ineligible for food assistance under the proposed rule.
These struggling families would remain at risk of hunger. But instead of being able to purchase food with SNAP benefits, they would have to rely on Alabama’s already stretched network of food banks and pantries. Forcing yet more people into the private, emergency food system would reduce the system’s ability to serve current clients. And that would only result in greater hunger in the state.
The proposed rule also would circumvent a policy that Congress already has rejected. During the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorization, Congress considered and rejected a policy very similar to, and having the same effect as, the one proposed in this draft rule.
Circumventing a legislative decision made less than a year ago would be an inappropriate administrative action. That is a crucial reason for the USDA to withdraw the proposed rule.
As described above, Alabama Arise believes the proposed rule would increase hunger, particularly among seniors, working families, and people with disabilities. The rule would increase child hunger and reduce participation in USDA school meal programs. It would place additional administrative burdens and costs on states, reducing their ability to administer SNAP effectively. It would increase the burden on private emergency food providers. And it would seek to circumvent recently enacted federal legislation.
Arise urges the USDA to withdraw the proposed rule immediately. The agency should work instead to strengthen its commitment to end hunger and protect SNAP as authorized by Congress.