Trump’s food stamp rule change will hurt 19 million households
President Trump’s proposal to the food stamp program would mean 1.7 million households, totaling 3.1 million people, will lose benefits that help them put food on the table. And on top of that, 500,000 kids will lose access to free school lunches.
But as grim as these cuts may seem, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The Trump administration also wants to bury those who remain eligible for food stamps in paperwork. These additional 17.2 million households will “undergo a more burdensome application process” according to the Congressional Research Service. The result: more red tape that means even more families will lose SNAP supports that have proven health and economic benefits.
As it stands, if you qualify for other anti-poverty programs, state governments in 43 states can use data from those programs to make it far easier to enroll in SNAP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to change this “categorical eligibility” rule to make enrolling in SNAP harder.
This is no accident. In fact, it’s only the latest example of how the Trump administration is getting better at using administrative burdens as a backdoor means of policymaking. Having failed in Congress to cut SNAP, the Trump administration is betting that making the application process more dysfunctional will have the same effect.
It’s a good bet. As we document in our book “Administrative Burdens,” relatively minor barriers like learning about new programmatic rules or completing additional paperwork strongly influence whether people sign up for benefits they really need. We are more likely to make mistakes or give up when we are lost in the paperwork maze.
The outcome of more red tape is entirely predictable. Indeed, we need only look at past SNAP policy changes. Until Clinton-era welfare reform, SNAP benefits were automatically linked with other welfare payments. Welfare reform delinked the two. And as a result, the fraction of eligible recipients receiving benefits dropped from 75 percent in 1994 to 54 percent in 2001. That is equivalent to about 1 in 5 poor Americans in 2001 losing their benefits.
But it goes far beyond just food stamps – the ripple effects of this policy change are large.
SNAP provides an easy gateway to other forms of help. As Stephanie Land, a writer who is also a SNAP beneficiary explains: “By checking the SNAP box on other paperwork, like my daughter’s free school lunches, our utility assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and of both of my daughters’ Medicaid, I automatically qualified for benefits. No questions, no long phone conversations, no missing work to spend an afternoon waiting to talk to a caseworker.”
By law, new federal rules have to include “relevant scientific and technical findings.” The Trump administration fails this basic standard. It has ignored high-quality research that shows that SNAP reduces criminal activity, improves educational performance and leads to better health and economic outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture even ignored its own researchers who have found that SNAP provides a large economic stimulus, and lowers hunger and poverty. More to the point given the new policy, those researchers have documented that raising administrative burdens will lower SNAP participation. In sounds crazy, but Trump officials want to manage a program in a way that its own researchers have told them will make that program less effective.
No-one likes red tape, yet we grumble and go along with it when it’s necessary. But in this case, red tape is not just unnecessary, it’s bad policy. Policymakers should shift these kinds of administrative burdens away from the public and onto government when they can, making effective programs more, rather than less, accessible. The Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction and hard-working Americans will pay the price.
Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan are professors at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and authors of the book “Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means.”
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