H-E-B employees and customers interact at the checkout lanes. Photo by Scott Ball.
Under a new rule proposed by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutritional Service Agency, more than 230,000 Texas households would lose their food stamps. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Millions of Americans stand to lose food stamp benefits under a new policy proposed by the Trump administration, and new state-level data shows Texas would be one of the hardest-hit states.

According to a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 233,195 households in Texas would stop receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits if the policy changing how states calculate eligibility is implemented.

Sarah Lauffer, lead researcher for Mathematica, the policy research organization that compiled the state-level data used in the report, said that of the 233,195 households in Texas set to lose SNAP benefits under the proposed change, 75 percent of them are living in poverty.

“With what is being proposed, households with income slightly above the limit will no longer be eligible,” Lauffer, said. This is done by eliminating a policy called broad-based categorical eligibility, making millions of people ineligible, she said.

Adopted in 42 states, including Texas, broad-based categorical eligibility is designed to expand the number of people eligible for SNAP benefits by giving states the discretion to determine who needs food stamps beyond federal requirements. As the law stands, households can qualify for SNAP benefits by meeting the financial criteria for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) instead of the SNAP criteria.

Under the proposed rule, people whose gross income is at least 130 percent above the federal poverty line (slightly more than $16,000 for one person) or have more than $2,250 in assets would no longer qualify to receive federal food benefits.

San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Erik Cooper told the Rivard Report that Texas has a 60 percent SNAP participation rate, which means 40 percent of potentially eligible households are not receiving the benefit.

“We already have more people in need than are currently receiving SNAP benefits, so any cut to this federal safety net program could put [the Food Bank] in a position where we are being asked to double or triple our support,” Cooper said. “The San Antonio Food Bank feeds 58,000 people each week. About a third of those are children, a third are ages 16 to 65, and a third are seniors over 65.”

Cooper said that while there is an even three-way split for the populations it currently serves, the senior population it sees at its food pantries and distribution outlets continues to increase.

“Baby boomers are retiring, and they are retiring with no 401(k), no retirement, and are solely reliant on Social Security, which could be as little $600 a month,” Cooper said. Under the new law, an elderly person bringing in just over $1,300 a month “would no longer qualify for SNAP benefits despite already struggling to use those limited dollars they are given to pay for rent, utilities, health care costs, and to buy food.”

In addition to helping struggling, low-income households, SNAP benefits also help local economies, Cooper said.

“In rural communities, SNAP has a real trickle-up effect. It creates opportunity for the local grocery retailer to receive dollars from patrons, which allows them to stock shelves, hire checkers, stockers, and a butcher, and purchase milk, eggs, and poultry,” Cooper said. “The program is an economic accelerator in all communities but specifically in those rural communities. If cuts occur, that means there are going to be less people shopping at their local grocery store, because they can’t afford to shop. That’s a double whammy to the family and the local economy.”

Proponents of the rule change argue that the policy change is necessary because states have exploited broad-based categorical eligibility.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutritional Service Agency, which proposed the rule on July 24, said the “proposed rule would fix a loophole that has expanded SNAP recipients in some states to include people who receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it.”

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement regarding the proposed change in policy.

The USDA says that eliminating the broad-based categorical eligibility policy would save the department an estimated $1.9 billion a year.

President and CEO of San Antonio Food Bank Eric Cooper gives remarks. Photo by Scott Ball.
Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.

“When I think of these policy changes from this administration, I scratch my head, to be honest, because it’s the same administration that added more revenue to high-income income individuals and businesses. Why would we deduct meals from low-income families and seniors? It just doesn’t seem fair,” Cooper said.

Andy Czarny, a 71-year old SNAP recipient, said the $58 he receives in SNAP benefits monthly is the difference between “eating healthier or eating a lot of ramen noodles and beans.”

“The only income I receive is about $780 in Social Security each month, which goes toward my bills like anyone else, my bus tickets. Without SNAP I definitely wouldn’t be eating as healthy,” and I might look for more places in the community that serve meals, Czarny said. 

While it is unclear whether Czarny would lose his SNAP benefits should the new policy go into effect, he is one of millions of Americans who rely on the assistance program to meet their basic needs. 

The U.S. poverty rate declined slightly last year, according to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau. It credits the SNAP program for 3.5 million fewer people living below the poverty line from 2016 to 2018.

“I hope states will take the data into consideration when trying to assess the changes,” Lauffer said. “We want them to be able to see how it impacts their state directly and to break that down between household characteristics.”

“It’s intended for states to look at,” Lauffer said. “We want them to be able to see how it impacts their state directly and to break that down between household characteristics.”

Cooper said that if the change goes into effect, there is potential for the San Antonio Food Bank to have to ration its food offerings, potentially cutting a week’s worth of food down to five days, in addition to working to gather more food and money donations from the community.  

“I think that what is unfair is to make a cut at the federal level and expect that at the local level we will be able to make up through philanthropy that kind of loss,” Cooper said. “Now we will be challenged to try to fill that gap for hungry families or individuals, but we are not going to solve hunger with canned goods – it’s through public policy. That’s the only way.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.