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State group: USDA mulling big changes to food stamps, including allowing states to impose soda ban

A sign in a market window in New York advertises the acceptance of food stamps. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing dramatic changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, the $73 billion social safety net that feeds 42 million Americans, according to a conservative group that met with senior USDA officials this week.

The USDA is considering proposals to let states impose new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy and require SNAP candidates to apply in person, according to the Secretaries Innovation Group (SIG), which represents state social service secretaries from 20 Republican administrations. The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants' citizen children.

Members of SIG, including the group's executive director, Jason Turner, met with Brandon Lipps, the USDA official in charge of the food stamp program, on Tuesday. During that meeting, Turner said, Lipps indicated that changes were coming to the program that would “line up closely” with 14 specific policy proposals made earlier this year by SIG.

After the meeting, the USDA announced that it was planning new state “flexibilities” in the food stamp program. Through an existing waiver program, the agency can allow states to enact food stamp policies that differ from the program's national guidelines. But in a Friday interview, Lipps declined to confirm or deny whether those flexibilities would mirror SIG's proposals.

One USDA official with knowledge of the coming program changes, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the agency has not publicized any details yet, said the administration is considering proposals from SIG and other organizations.

“I think our goal right now is to serve the population that Congress intended us to serve,” Lipps said.

In the past, the USDA has rejected requests from states to take some of the actions SIG has suggested, particularly limiting the types of foods that people can buy with food stamps.

SNAP is America's largest anti-hunger program, providing an average benefit of $125 per person each month to 42 million Americans. The majority of SNAP recipients are children or seniors, though participation rose sharply across all demographic groups during and after the recession, peaking in 2013 at 47.6 million.

The secretaries' proposals would allow states to significantly change how they offer nutrition assistance. Through the waivers, the USDA could unilaterally enact the proposals on a state-by-state basis without further congressional action, according to experts who reviewed the proposals at The Washington Post's request.

One of the more controversial proposals involves a recommendation that the USDA ban “harmful” foods, such as soda and candy, from being purchased with food stamps. SIG also proposes that the program allow the purchase of only specific, “approved” foods, similar to what the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program does.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to subsidize nutrition for needy families,” reads SIG's proposal, which was submitted to the USDA and Republican congressional leadership, and obtained by The Post. “However, too many recipients are utilizing their benefit to purchase items that are not only void of nutrition, they are damaging to their health.”

If adopted, those sorts of limitations would represent a major break from USDA precedent. Over the past decade, the agency has rejected requests from a number of localities — including Maine, Minnesota and New York City — that sought to impose similar limitations on their programs. Officials have historically cited a lack of solid evidence that soda and junk-food bans change SNAP recipients' diets.

Such bans are also anathema to anti-hunger advocates, who argue that food limits further stigmatize the poor, and to the grocery industry, which says such changes would necessitate costly overhauls of point-of-sale systems.

Many of the group’s other proposals involve allegations of fraud, particularly around the resale of SNAP benefits. (The USDA has said this type of reselling is not a significant problem, affecting only 1 percent of total benefits.)

Historically, the USDA has allowed any member of a household to use the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards on which food stamps are stored. The secretaries propose limiting the card to two people, to prevent unauthorized use.

They also recommend that applicants be required to apply for benefits in person, as opposed to online or over the phone — as is common, particularly in rural areas.

And the secretaries’ plan eliminates a provision that allows multiple families living in a single house to apply for food stamps separately, out of concern that some adults have abused the rule to access more benefits than they’re eligible for. But the provision could also slash benefits for low-income families in high-rent areas who do genuinely share a house or apartment with other people.

Similarly, the secretaries propose a change to the SNAP benefits for citizen children of undocumented immigrants, suggesting that parents' income be included in benefit calculations. Because children list no income otherwise, this would probably slash their benefits, experts said.

In his letter to policymakers in August, Turner explained that the proposed changes would refocus the program on the people most in need of it, a focus that he believes was lost under the past two administrations.

“The last undersecretary [of nutrition] explicitly said that he wanted to expand food stamps to as many households as possible,” Turner said. “We think that’s deeply misguided.”

But experts on both sides of the political spectrum have questioned whether the proposals, if adopted, will have the effects state secretaries intend.

There is little empirical evidence to suggest that these specific proposals will reduce fraud or increase nutrition, said Vincent Smith, director of the agriculture studies program at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. At the same time, there is reason to believe that cracking down on those practices would increase the cost of the program.

“This is really a cost-benefit issue,” Smith said. “Every time you constrain the use of food stamps, you are imposing an increase in administrative costs. The question is whether that increase in negligible. And in this case it’s probably not.”

There is also some fear that the proposals could inadvertently prevent eligible needy families from receiving assistance that they’re entitled to. Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that many working people can’t take a day off to apply for SNAP benefits in person.

“The whole idea is to layer on stigmatizing complexities that make it more difficult to apply for the program and to use benefits,” Dean said. “It’s wildly out of sync with what states have fought for in the past.”

To further complicate the matter, the proposed changes will come as Congress contemplates SNAP reforms of its own. The program’s governing legislation, the Farm Bill, comes up for reauthorization next year. Congressional Republicans have also promised to overhaul the federal welfare system in 2018. A bill introduced over the summer would cut benefits to unemployed adults and grant the USDA broad authority to limit the foods that can be bought with EBT cards.

The state secretaries also back those proposals, Turner said. In fact, several SIG members met with Republican members of the House Ways and Means, Education and Workforce, and Finance committees Wednesday to discuss several welfare programs, including food stamps.

“We meet with agencies and members of Congress every year around this time,” Turner said. “What’s very different this year is that our visit coincides with new congressional interest in welfare reform. And all the members we meet with say they’re prepared to focus on it next.”

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