A Transportation Security Administration employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey. Credit: Julio Cortez | AP

Food stamps not only keep millions of American from going hungry. The federal benefit also lifts people, especially children, out of poverty.

That’s why proposed changes to the food stamp program, in the name of government efficiency, are misplaced.

The Trump administration has proposed a rule change to make it more difficult for Americans to get help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Mind you, the administration is not saying that fewer Americans need the help that SNAP provides, In fact, its own analysis says the opposite. Instead, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the changes are needed to make the system more fair and efficient.

“The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity — just as they do in their own homes, businesses, and communities,” Perdue said in a statement that accompanied the announcement in July.

Here’s the crux of the rule change: Currently, poor Americans in 43 states, including Maine, who qualify for other anti-poverty programs — such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — can be automatically enrolled in the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The proposed rule change would stop this practice and require those seeking food assistance to complete a separate application process, including an asset test, for SNAP.

As for integrity, the USDA’s own website highlights SNAP quality control results, noting that in 2011 “over 99 percent of those receiving SNAP benefits are eligible and payment accuracy was 96.20 percent.” So it is hard to believe that millions of Americans are lying to get SNAP benefits, which average $1.40 per person per meal.

By the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own assessment of the proposal, more than 3 million individuals would no longer qualify for food stamps, accounting for 5 percent of total SNAP benefits. Households with elderly individuals would be “disproportionately affected,” the analysis said.

This is counterproductive. In 2018, nearly 12 percent of Americans were considered food insecure, which means that they had difficulty acquiring enough food. Nearly 7 percent had low food security, meaning they eat less or rely on food assistance. Both numbers have declined slightly in recent years, but all politicians should be outraged that millions of Americans go hungry each day.

Maine’s prevalence of food insecurity is above the national average and the highest in New England.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 44,000 SNAP participants in Maine would lose food benefits under the proposed rule change. Of those, about 11,000 are children and nearly 9,600 are over age 60 or have a disability.

“This proposal would take healthy food off the plates of children, older Mainers, and people with disabilities while punishing hard-working families,” Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a press release earlier this month. “We urge the Administration to rescind this misguided proposal, which will hurt Maine people who are just trying to make ends meet.”

Maine’s congressional delegation signed onto a letter to Perdue this week objecting to the proposed changes.

“The proposed rule would be acutely felt in Maine, almost more than any other state in the country,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden wrote.

“While we support efforts to ensure that SNAP benefits go to those who are most in need, we caution that over a quarter of Maine’s current SNAP beneficiaries could lose basic food assistance under USDA’s proposal,” they added. “For a state like Maine that is already struggling with food insecurity, these changes would be detrimental to the very population the program is designed to support.”

Beyond helping American avoid food insecurity, SNAP keeps millions of families out of poverty. According to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the program kept an average of 3.5 million Americans from falling below the poverty line from 2016 to 2018.

“SNAP has consistently been among the most impactful noncash transfer,” the bureau said.

It ranked SNAP as the third most effective program for lifting Americans out of poverty, behind Social Security and refundable tax credits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If the Trump administration rule change is implemented, millions of Americans will be hungrier and poorer. This is a bad trade-off that should be rejected.