Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid and Bread for the City Oppose Federal Threats to SNAP

Together with Bread for the City, Legal Aid filed comments yesterday strongly opposing the latest Trump Administration threat to the SNAP program that so many of our clients rely upon to help avoid hunger and meet their nutritional needs. In July 2019, the Administration proposed to limit the ability of the District and 41 other states to expand eligibility for SNAP through “Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, implementation of this proposed rule would lead to over three million individuals losing SNAP benefits nationwide.

Legal Aid and Bread strongly oppose this proposed rule because its implementation would harm the low-income populations we serve, increase states’ administrative burden, reduce children’s access to school lunch programs, and violate congressional intent.

The Food and Nutrition Act (FNA) provides for categorical eligibility for households in which all members receive other public benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income. Federal and state TANF funds can be used to pay for non-cash benefits and services that support one of the four purposes of the TANF program which are: (1) assisting needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes; (2) reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; (3) preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and (4) encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Therefore, states can expand SNAP eligibility to reach individuals who receive such TANF-funded, non-cash services. This policy option is known as “Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility” (or BBCE).

Currently, 41 states and the District of Columbia have used BBCE to align their SNAP eligibility rules with those for non-cash TANF-funded benefits or services, widening access to SNAP. Like many states, the District has used BBCE to expand income eligibility for SNAP to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line and eliminate the asset test for those who qualify. All District households’ applying for or recertifying their SNAP eligibility, regardless of whether they will ultimately qualify for SNAP on the basis of BBCE, must follow all of the SNAP rules to submit an application, verify income, household size and other items and participate in an interview with the SNAP agency.

Implementation of this proposed rule would harm the SNAP program (and those who depend on it for their food security) in two major ways.

First, the proposed rule would eliminate eligibility for millions of individuals who receive SNAP by virtue of qualifying under their state’s BBCE criteria. The following populations benefit most from BBCE (and would therefore be the likeliest to suffer if it were restricted or eliminated):

(1) Working families whose earnings approach the earnings cliff that exists in means-tested programs. BBCE smooths out this cliff by preserving access to SNAP benefits.

(2) Households with high expenses such as housing and child care, both of which are more costly in the District than in any other place in the country.

(3) Households who have been able to save for retirement, education for their children, emergencies or a down payment for a home. Eliminating disincentives for savings is particularly important for people of color, who face a large racial wealth gap between them and their white counterparts. In 2013 and 2014, the median wealth for white families in the District of Columbia was $284,000 compared to $3,500 for black families and $13,000 for Latinx families.

(4)  Children receiving free and reduced price school lunches. BBCE streamlines the eligibility process for this program, helping more school-aged children avoid hunger. Numerous studies have documented the link between childhood food insecurity and “various health risks, including higher rates of asthma and greater odds of hospitalization, mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues” and negative impacts on children’s “cognitive skills, as well as their interpersonal skills, self-control, attentiveness, persistence, and flexibility.”

Second, the elimination of BBCE will make it harder for all SNAP applicants and beneficiaries to keep their SNAP benefits. BBCE has allowed states to streamline their SNAP eligibility determination processes leading fewer families cycling on and off of the program. Without BBCE, many of these families will have to go through more complicated processes, which will, in turn, strain safety net agencies’ resources and make the eligibility process less efficient for everyone.

Clients of Legal Aid and Bread already face barriers to obtaining and keeping SNAP benefits without interruption even with BBCE policies in place. Since October 2016, the District has struggled to provide SNAP benefits to individuals in a timely manner and provide adequate notice, as it implemented a new computer system. Too often, applicants and beneficiaries must go to already overburdened service centers to turn in documentation of income, sometimes multiple times, and wait in line for hours in order to be seen. A rule change regarding BBCE would likely force the District to reprogram its computer system and change its internal policies yet again, making the already-difficult process of getting and keeping SNAP benefits in the District even harder.

Finally, beyond harming vulnerable individuals who rely on SNAP benefits, this proposal also violates congressional intent. Congress has had the opportunity to restrict or eliminate BBCE as it reauthorized the Farm Bill, including SNAP. In 2013 and 2018, the House passed legislation that would have restricted BBCE. And in 2013 and 2018, Congress chose not to include these restrictions in the final legislation passed by Congress and signed into law, thus preserving states’ ability to enact BBCE policies.

For the reasons stated above, Legal Aid and Bread for the City strongly oppose this regulation which would harm millions without a corresponding benefit.

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