The Trump administration is warring with poor people, migrant workers, and the states over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). D.C. is pushing back. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and New York State Attorney General Letitia James are working with a 20-state coalition through a federal challenge filed in the District, confronting the Trump administration’s move to force adults to have jobs or get into vocational training to qualify for food stamps. On account of new restrictions, about 700,000 unemployed people throughout the country will, effective April 2020, lose the ability to extend short-term SNAP assistance beyond three months in a three-year period.
Last year in D.C., approximately 110,000 people received monthly SNAP benefits. The federal government pays for the benefits, yet D.C. pays half the administration costs. In D.C., new federal restrictions will impact 90% of the people who now qualify for SNAP; and, as Racine points out, the impact will be racially disproportionate. Racine’s office received support from D.C.’s Legal Aid Society and Department of Human Services in launching the legal action to fight it.
Millionaire Activist “Audits” SNAP in Minnesota
Sonny Perdue, the federal Secretary of Agriculture, says 36 million people receive food stamps, up from 17 million two decades ago, because states are too lenient. To hear the USDA describe this, you’d think the states have been handing out food stamps to millionaires—other than Rob Undersander. Oh, meet Rob Undersander.
Two years ago, Undersander applied for food stamps in Minnesota, declaring a low, fixed retirement income—without mentioning another million in assets the Undersander couple owned. Framing this stunt as an “audit” of SNAP, Undersander collected food stamps for 19 months, receiving $300 in monthly benefits. And now, to fight this manufactured problem, the USDA has created a rule that takes food away from more than 3 million people and takes hundreds of thousands kids off automatic access to low-cost or free meals at school.
The agriculture department wants households with at least $2,250 in assets ($3,500 for a household with a disabled adult) barred from assistance. “Government dependency has never been the American dream,” says Sonny Perdue. Flash back to 2005, when Perdue was Georgia’s governor, and a last-minute legislative tweak made a tax break retroactive to 2004, conveniently applying to Perdue’s own 2004 property deal. Perdue signed that bill into law in April 2005—just days before the tax deadline. Sonny Perdue would have owed $100,000 in taxes on a 2004 property sale—if not for this backdated tax write-off. This is the person lecturing the rest of us on the proper way to attain the American dream.
Ripples of Loss for Schools
Schools where a significant population of students are eligible for meal benefits may offer free meals to all students. This cuts bureaucracy, and avoids singling out kids who receive meal benefits. But that graceful touch in the law may end for many schools. Stricter qualification rules could make hundreds of schools lose this benefit. Perdue’s USDA insists that 96% of the kids involved could still qualify, with the proper paperwork. But Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition subcommittee, said the administration’s broad brush has demonized hungry people as “lazy and undeserving” and Rep. Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin democrat, called the change “beyond cruel.”
The losses will come in widening ripples. Federal funding supports school districts whose children need it, through Title I money. But that support hinges on the number of students who qualify for lunches.
In August 2019, A.G. Racine joined another coalition of states to sue the Trump administration on its new rule, which became effective February 2020, chilling immigrants from applying for vital benefits. To the extent that the Department of Homeland Security’s no-public-charge rule scares parents away from SNAP out of fear of losing their green cards, their U.S.-born children, who are entitled to benefits, are losing their automatic eligibility for school lunches. The rule’s language leaves these kids’ eligibility intact, but many parents won’t know this or won’t want to poke the DHS bear.
A divided Supreme Court green-lighted the new change in January. Justice Sotomayor decried the majority for caving to political pressure of the Trump administration, which is bent on punishing immigrants and the financially disenfranchised. The struggle continues.