Even as Illinois works to make it easier for people to get a square meal, the Trump administration is trying to take food from tens of thousands of people in the state.
Congress, for all its obeisance to President Trump, should squelch this move.
Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that will let some people use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly known as food stamps — at restaurants, mostly fast-food establishments. The law was designed to help the elderly, the homeless and people with disabilities.
But just as Illinois is taking this step forward, the Trump administration wants to take a leap backward. The administration is proposing a change in eligibility that would reduce by 3.1 million the number of people nationwide who can receive food stamps, making the argument that it’s just cutting loose people who don’t need the help.
The proposed changes, which the administration says would save $2 billion a year, also could cut off some low-income children from free school lunches because SNAP-eligible kids no longer would be automatically enrolled.
The administration argues that many states have made the definition of eligibility too broad, and in fact states have changed eligibility requirements. Forty states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of a provision in the federal law that allows them to raise the gross income for SNAP eligibility from 130% of the federal poverty level — before expenses — to as much as 200%.
Some states also allow recipients to have more than $2,250 in assets if they already qualify for other state or federal benefits.
But the Trump administration’s extremely narrow definition of eligibility, which essentially would force states to roll back their own definitions, reveals a lack of understanding of how and why people often go hungry.
As Greg Trotter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository said Friday, it’s always eye-opening to hear from people who show up at food pantries and soup kitchens about the unexpected ways that they encounter food insecurity. It’s not just a matter of chronic homelessness or long-term and persistent poverty.
“These are working families, college students, working professionals who were laid off,” Trotter said. “It is a vast range of people.”
As a report by MarketWatch points out, the Trump administration is effectively creating a benefits cliff, where a parent’s small raise at work — or a modest amount of savings — could disqualify a family from food stamps entirely. That leaves them poorer for getting a raise or saving money.
Having pushed through a massive tax cut in 2017 that has largely benefited wealthy people, you might think the Trump administration wouldn’t begrudge low-income families an opportunity to consistently put food on the table. About 33.5 million people on average received monthly SNAP benefits of about $125 last year, provided with a card that allows them to buy specific groceries from designated stores.
Two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to families with children. And the number of people getting SNAP benefits has been on a modest decline since 2013 — three years before Trump took office.
For many people, SNAP benefits are the first line of defense against a day or week or month of going hungry.
“With the rising cost of other things, the cost of living in terms of rents and mortgages and rent and what not — even the cost of meals and prescription drugs and health care — working families still struggle to put a meal on the table,” said state Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, who helped shepherd the Illinois bill through the Legislature.
The Trump administration’s proposed rule change, put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, must be subjected to a two-month comment period before it can be enacted.
We hope the administration gets an earful. Congress also can stop this latest assault simply by codifying the existing rules into law.
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