How the GOP food-stamp bill adds to state bureacracy

September 23, 2013

(Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post.)

The bill the House passed late last week to slash $39 billion in food aid was all about reducing the scope of the federal government, but it could do the opposite for states.

The Republican bill eliminates a shortcut states have long used to determine eligibility for food aid provided under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Rather than check whether each a household qualifies for SNAP benefits directly, states have for years been making that determination based on whether they already receive other low-income assistance.

The thinking for the practice, known as “categorical eligibility,” was this: if you’ve already passed the test for welfare, you probably pass it for food stamps. Instead of running separate eligibility tests for all low-income assistance programs, states have been allowed to streamline the process.

“Categorical eligibility was seen as advancing the goals of simplifying administration, easing entry to the program for eligible households, emphasizing coordination among low-income assistance programs, and reducing the potential for errors in establishing eligibility for benefits,” Congress’s research arm, the Congressional Research Service, wrote in a report about the practice last week. Forty states—red ones and blue ones—have embraced the broadest form of categorical eligibility, it found.

Under the Republican House bill, however, that shortcut would be restricted yielding $11 billion in savings over a decade as households are discouraged or deemed ineligible for the benefits. An estimated 2.1 million people will lose benefits next year alone, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But while the federal government’s payouts will shrink, cash-strapped states will have to start conducting more determination tests.

“This limitation in categorical eligibility would increase state administrative costs in SNAP and significantly curtail state flexibility,” the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures wrote in a May letter responding to a similar provision.

Earlier this month, the American Public Human Services Association, a group whose membership includes SNAP administrators, echoed the sentiment. States have become more efficient in determining eligibility under the current SNAP rules, APHSA wrote in a letter to House and Senate leadership.

“APHSA strongly supports SNAP’s current administrative options, which have allowed states to reduce administrative costs and errors; eliminate duplicative steps in the eligibility process; and make more effective use of scarce caseworker and information system resources,” APHSA Executive Director Trace Wareing wrote. “These options include the current one for categorical eligibility and those for SNAP’s other administrative options.”

And, in 2007, the Government Accountability Office found that eliminating categorical eligibility altogether could decrease participation by as much as 25 percent in North Carolina or Arizona, or as little as 0.1 percent in Kansas or 0.2 percent in South Carolina. State officials also told GAO that eliminating categorical eligibility would increase costs, workload and error rates.

Conservatives argue that restricting the practice prevents those who don’t qualify for food aid from receiving it. And it is true that some are determined eligible when they are not. In many states, the practice eliminates the asset test (SNAP recipients must have less than $2,000 in liquid assets). And CRS found that some households were found to be eligible even though they earned more than the rules allow.

In fiscal year 2011, for example, a monthly average of 3.5 percent of households without an elderly or disabled member received SNAP benefits and had incomes above the cutoff of 130 percent of the poverty line, according to CRS. (That 3.5 percent likely make only a little more than the threshold, though, as they’ve already qualified for some other form of low-income assistance, albeit one with a higher threshold.)

But advocates argue that by adding another eligibility test, those who deserve and need SNAP benefits may be turned away.

While it may not be likely to make its way through the Senate, the House bill, if passed, would succeed in both limiting the federal government while also likely forcing an expansion in state bureaucracy.

 

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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Niraj Chokshi · September 21, 2013