Trump threatens food stamps for thousands of Illinoisans

Prez seeks to close ‘loophole’ that streamlined, expanded SNAP enrollment

The Trump administration is threatening to end food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits, for millions of Americans and perhaps well over 100,000 in Illinois. (Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is threatening to end food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits, for millions of Americans and perhaps well over 100,000 in Illinois. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

The Trump administration is threatening to impose new rules that would potentially deprive millions of people of food stamps, perhaps more than 100,000 in Illinois.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has posted proposed new rules that seek to close what it calls an Obama administration “loophole” that streamlined and expanded enrollment under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — more commonly known as food stamps.

According to the Associated Press, President Obama encouraged states to streamline the SNAP application process early in his administration, in 2009. It was designed to cut paperwork by automatically enrolling people in the food-stamp program if they qualified for other federal assistance programs with similar requirements.

Trump’s USDA is trying to curtail that practice, with estimated savings of $2.5 billion a year, but critics say that imperils critical assistance to the elderly and to children, including free school lunches, and that it could swamp state agencies like the Illinois Department of Human Services with additional applications.

Working from a USDA formula that suggested more than 3 million of the 36 million U.S. food-stamp recipients would lose benefits, the Chicago Tribune projected that it would affect 77,000 Illinois households. Meghan Powers, IDHS spokeswoman, couldn’t confirm that figure Wednesday, but clarified that in any case it “could mean several individuals per household,” thus pushing the number of Illinoisans affected conservatively well above 100,000.

“There is a more robust analysis currently underway at the Department of Human Services, but at this point we don't have solid estimates,” said Nolan Downey, an attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. “We are confident that tens of thousands of people in Illinois would be affected, but right now we are not in a position to be more specific.”

Regardless, Powers said the new rules could cause a backlog of applicants at IDHS. “SNAP exists to help low-income families meet the most basic of human needs,” she said. “The proposed USDA rule would make it harder for low-income families to secure SNAP benefits in Illinois and 43 other states across the country. It would slow down the processing of urgent applications submitted by vulnerable people confronted with hunger and poverty.

“Creating new administrative hurdles will also reverse the immense progress Illinois has recently made in processing SNAP applications in a timely manner,” she added. “There are currently more than 1,767,000 individuals who receive SNAP benefits in Illinois and a vast majority of them and new SNAP applicants would face additional scrutiny at each application and recertification of their eligibility.”

The Trump administration is proposing to limit SNAP benefits to people earning up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line — just under $28,000 for a family of three — and to those receiving at least $50 a month in welfare benefits for at least six months. It’s also seeking to reimpose an asset limit of $3,500, which would rule out seniors without earnings who are living off savings.

The USDA has estimated that 13.2 percent of households with a senior citizen would lose benefits, as would 12.5 percent of households claiming benefits on earnings. Households qualifying for SNAP are automatically eligible for free school lunches, so those too would be jeopardized, or at very least families would have to go through the process of having to enroll separately in local school lunch programs.

The Obama administration was attempting to cut back paperwork, but it also encouraged states to expand enrollment. Some 38 states took advantage of that, in part through an allowance that anyone even given a brochure on welfare programs would be ruled elligible. The AP reported: “Illinois, for example, produced a flier briefly listing 21 services, a website, and email address and a telephone number for more information” to expand enrollment.

Last year, Rob Undersander of Minnesota, a Trump supporter and self-described millionaire, shined a light on that “loophole” by claiming to have received $6,000 in SNAP benefits over a year and a half.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint.

“The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity — just as they do in their own homes, businesses, and communities,” he added. “That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

But returning to the tight federal restrictions would harm millions of U.S. citizens and well over 100,000 in Illinois who are genuinely in need.

The USDA published the proposed new rule in the Federal Register last week, opening a 60-day period for public comment on whether it should formally be adopted. It has an online page for public comments, with the new SNAP rule categorized as RIN 0584-AE62.