On Dec. 14, the Bangor Daily News published an opinion column, “ Economic inequity has gone bananas,” that vastly mischaracterized the upcoming and proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To dispel unnecessary fears for those who participate in SNAP, let’s set the record straight.
SNAP participants who are able-bodied adults without dependents — that is, individuals ages 18-49 without a disability or children in their care — have been expected to work or prepare for work in order to continue receiving benefits beyond the three-month time limit since President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform law. Recognizing that not everyone can find a job on day one, “work” is defined as not just paid employment, but also job training, volunteer work, participation in a SNAP Employment and Training program, and much more. This policy does not apply to children, their parents, those over age 50, individuals with a disability, or pregnant women.
This is not new and is not changing.
What is changing is states’ ability to easily waive these requirements. This final rule places common-sense limits on waivers and continues to require state partners to engage with SNAP recipients as they build new skills, seek opportunities, and ultimately move towards a better life. The law allows states to waive the time limit in areas of high unemployment and to exempt a percentage of their caseload for any reason, and requires states to assess each individual as work-capable and exempt those who are not. But, for those who are, with unemployment at 3.5 percent nationwide — the lowest in nearly 50 years — and even lower in Maine at 2.8 percent, now is the time for more Americans to enter, re-enter, and remain in the workforce.
Further inciting unnecessary fear, the column also incorrectly asserts that nearly a million children would lose free or reduced lunches under a separate proposal to change categorical eligibility in SNAP. That is simply not true. While some children would no longer be automatically eligible for free school meals based on SNAP participation, the vast majority — an estimated 96 percent — would still be eligible to receive free or reduced price (i.e. no more than 40 cents) school meals by submitting an application. Annually, department data show, about 6 million other children come onto the school meal programs by completing a simple application with eligibility standards mandated by Congress. These children would be treated equally under those standards.
What the proposed SNAP categorical eligibility change would do, however, is close a loophole that has allowed individuals who would otherwise be ineligible to come onto SNAP by providing them with nothing more than a brochure or a referral to an 800 number. This specific flexibility has become so egregious that it’s been called out by many, including both Congress’s non-partisan Government Accountability Office and the USDA Office of Inspector General, and there has even been a case of a millionaire successfully enrolling in SNAP simply to prove the point. It may seem unbelievable, but 42 states have Broad Based Categorical Eligibility policies that permit them to issue these types of minimal benefits to expand eligibility beyond statutory guidelines. USDA’s proposed rule upholds program integrity and would restore confidence that eligibility for SNAP is consistent from state-to-state with the standards in federal law.
Families receiving SNAP are looking for a helping hand in a time of need. They don’t need fearmongering. They need the truth, and they need us to work together to strengthen the program to safeguard benefits for those most in need.
The upcoming and proposed rules are about continuously improving America’s cornerstone nutrition assistance program so it best meets the needs of our country and its people.
Brandon Lipps is deputy under secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.