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USDA proposes change that would push 3 million Americans off food stamps

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The US Department of Agriculture proposed new rules Tuesday to limit access to food stamps for households with savings and other assets, a measure that officials said would cut benefits to about 3 million people.

In a telephone call with reporters, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Acting Deputy Under Secretary Brandon Lipps said the proposed new rules for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, were aimed at ending automatic eligibility for those who were already receiving federal and state assistance.

‘‘This proposal will save money and preserve the integrity of the program,’’ Perdue said. ‘‘SNAP should be a temporary safety net.’’


About 40 million low-income people received SNAP benefits in 2018. Forty-three states routinely grant eligibility to low-income people already receiving other government benefits, without undergoing income or asset tests.

Lipps said the proposal would result in an annual budgetary savings of $2.5 billion and restrict less-needy individuals from qualifying for benefits.

USDA officials said the proposal was aimed at closing a loophole that was famously exploited by a wealthy Minnesota man, Rob Undersander, who says he received food stamps for 19 months despite owning significant assets such as property and bank accounts.

‘‘Now people will have to qualify like everyone else,’’ Perdue said.

Lipps also said the proposal aimed to make sure that beneficiaries are treated equally across all states, and that recipients’ geographic location should not dictate their benefit level.

The USDA officials had no specifics on the financial cutoff for their proposal.

Current rules give states latitude to raise SNAP income eligibility limits so low-income families with housing and child care costs that consume a sizable share of their income can continue to receive help affording adequate food.

This option also allows states to adopt less-restrictive asset tests so families, seniors, and people with a disability can have modest savings or own their own home without losing SNAP benefits.


Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the proposed rule was an attempt to bypass Congress which has blocked earlier attempts by the Trump administration to cut food stamps.

‘‘This proposal is yet another attempt by this Administration to circumvent Congress and make harmful changes to nutrition assistance that have been repeatedly rejected on a bipartisan basis,’’ Stabenow said in a statement. ‘‘This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals, and make it harder for states to administer food assistance. ‘‘

Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said limiting access to SNAP would overwhelmingly affect working families, seniors, and people with disabilities. It could encourage some recipients to spend down their savings or to work less to continue to qualify.

‘‘Instead of punishing working families if they work more hours or penalizing seniors and people with disabilities who save for emergencies, the president should seek to assist them with policies that help them afford the basics and save for the future,’’ she said.

The proposal begins a 60-day public comment period Wednesday, and those comments must be reviewed before the proposal can go into effect. The last USDA proposal on SNAP received more than 100,000 comments.

To be eligible for SNAP, a household’s gross income must be below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. In 2019, that works out to $32,640 a year for a family of four. Democrats pointed out that the benefit amounts to $1.40 per person per meal.


Currently, households remain eligible with up to $2,250 in countable assets (such as cash or money in a bank account) or $3,500 in countable assets if at least one member of the household is age 60 or older, or is disabled. These amounts are updated annually.