Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), pictured last year, criticized a retired Minnesota man last week for what she called a “ridiculous millionaire stunt.” The man, who says he has a net worth of more than $1 million, applied for food stamps and received them. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Columnist

With the Trump administration considering a multipronged attack on federal poverty programs, Democrats staged a preemptive action.

They defended a provision that allows states to provide food-stamp benefits to recipients who are above federal guidelines. 

And they blasted attempts by Republicans to disparage current program guidelines. At a hearing last week, Republicans pointed to a retired Minnesota man in the audience who received food stamps despite being a millionaire. 

“So why do we take the money if we know it’s wrong,” Rob Undersander wrote in a 2016 St. Cloud Times opinion piece. “To make a point and raise public awareness. . . . If I say I’m a millionaire receiving food stamps, I have their attention.”

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairman of a House agriculture subcommittee, accused Undersander of defrauding the government with a “ridiculous millionaire stunt.” Rep. Dusty Johnson (S.D.), the ranking Republican on the panel, defended Undersander, saying he “didn’t lie on his forms, he exposed the flaws of a failed system.” 

Members of Congress expect the Agriculture Department to propose regulations that would eliminate or reduce the ability of states to allow food stamps for people earning more than 130 percent of poverty guidelines, which is $33,475 for a family of four. Democrats pointed out that the benefit amounts to $1.40 per person per meal.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly called SNAP — is often referred to as food stamps, its former name.

Although this proposal is expected soon, President Trump has called for a 10-year, $220 billion reduction for SNAP in his budget plan for fiscal 2020. 

In addition, some SNAP and other anti-poverty program recipients would be cut by the administration’s plan to change the consumer inflation measure used to determine eligibility for the programs.

The federal government pays all of the SNAP benefit, but the states operate the program and pay administrative costs with some federal reimbursement.

State officials can include households with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Republicans in Congress previously were unable to limit SNAP benefits to households with incomes of 130 percent of the poverty level.

Even with gross income at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, SNAP recipients are still poor. Their net income must not exceed 100 percent of the poverty level after deducting certain expenses such as housing, child care and health care.

Citing Congressional Budget Office figures, Fudge said eliminating the 200 percent provision would result in 400,000 households losing food stamps and 265,000 children not eating free school meals.

Republicans consider the broader-based eligibility “a sham,” as Johnson said, because they say recipients can too easily qualify for a program that should help the truly needy.  

Without the expanded eligibility, “a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small increase in earnings,” Dottie Rosenbaum said in an article for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, where she is a senior fellow.

Mandela Barnes (D), Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, spoke from his own experience with joblessness in support of allowing states to provide SNAP benefits to families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“Thankfully, I qualified to receive a modest SNAP benefit, which allowed me to put food on the table instead of forcing me to choose between groceries and paying my bills,” he told the panel. “SNAP helped me for [a] short time when I needed it most.”

If Wisconsin refused food stamps to those who are above the 130 percent guideline, he said, “it would have a profound impact on the health and well-being of children in Wisconsin. Roughly 24,000 children in the state would lose access to nutritious food under the proposed rule change,” more than 40 percent of those who now qualify.

Forty states, the District, Guam and the Virgin Islands use the more generous guidelines.

Mississippi is not one of them. It restricted food-stamp eligibility because of “cost savings and efficiencies to ensure we are responsive to those seeking our services but, more importantly, to the taxpayers of Mississippi,” said John Davis, executive director of the state’s Department of Human Services. He didn’t say how many fewer people receive food stamps because of that decision.

Eliminating states’ flexibility would have serious ramifications, particularly for working families with children, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

“It is important to be assertive in reducing food insecurity for all types of families because it presents health risks at every stage” of life, she said. “We particularly worry about food-insecure households with kids and adolescents. Food-insecure children have higher rates of fair and poor health, have higher rates of hospitalization, increased risk of asthma, and delays in cognitive development.”