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Administration’s proposal would increase hunger across the land

Commentary
August 27, 2019By Janet Bauer

In the richest country in the world, the fact that many families don’t have enough to eat ought to be treated as a national emergency. It ought to be a priority of the highest order to make sure that no one is food insecure.

Not only is that not the case — about one in seven Oregonians is food insecure — but the Trump administration has put forward a proposal that would make matters worse. The administration seeks to limit access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our country’s first line of defense against food insecurity. It’s urgent we quash this proposal.

The administration proposes eliminating “categorical eligibility,” a policy that allows states some program flexibility so that more food insecure people are able to receive SNAP. Without categorical eligibility, food assistance is limited to those with income no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level (about $28,000 for a family of three, for example) and little in the way of assets. That’s a problem in many parts of the country, Oregon included, where the cost of living is high. In our state, families working for modest wages struggle to pay for food while coping with the high cost of housing and child care. Categorical eligibility enables Oregon to extend nutrition assistance to households with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level and to waive the asset test.

What would be the impact of eliminating categorical eligibility? In short order, some 3.1 million Americans — including 60,000 Oregonians — would lose nutrition assistance, putting their health at risk. Not surprisingly, research shows that food insecurity harms physical and mental health.

Food insecurity is particularly detrimental to children. Conditions associated with food insecurity among children include asthma, lower bone density, lower physical functioning, and mental and behavioral issues, among other impacts. Unsurprisingly, children lacking adequate nutrition do not do as well in school as children who are food secure.

Given the long-term harm that food insecurity poses for children, it is especially worrisome that the rule change would hit children twice: Not only do families stand to lose nutrition assistance, the children of those families would also lose the free lunches that help them avoid being hungry at school. This is because eligibility for SNAP makes a child automatically eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program.

The proposed rule would also punish work rather than encourage it. Categorical eligibility allows SNAP recipients to increase their earnings without risking losing all of their nutrition assistance. The income limits phase out more gradually under categorical eligibility, a situation that encourages SNAP recipients to increase their earned income. Eliminating categorical eligibility would mean benefits would abruptly end for workers with rising incomes, despite the fact that those earnings are likely not enough to cover the basics, including food.

There is still time to stop this proposal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, is accepting comments until September 23rd. Folks wishing to take action can submit a comment asking the department to withdraw this proposal that threatens to increase hunger across the land.