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SNAP Recipients: Prepare For Changes Under Trump!

SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), more commonly known as food stamps, is one of America’s most popular and widely used government assistance programs. Over forty-five million Americans receive SNAP benefits, with 76% of benefits going to households with children, making SNAP a key resource for low-income American families.[1] Families who depend on the program are anxiously waiting to see how the proposed cuts in the federal budget will affect their families. What should families who rely on SNAP be worried about precisely as America wades into unknown political waters?

What Exactly Is SNAP Anyhow?
Because SNAP is often a political football, a brief refresher on what exactly it is and does is useful. SNAP is a program administered at the federal level by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide assistance for families in financial need. Despite what you may hear on cable news, talk radio, or your uncle's Facebook page, there are strict guidelines for eligibility and the government does not give benefits indiscriminately.

The first guideline is based on household resources. Households may have $2,250 in countable resources, such as a bank account, or $3,250 in countable resources if at least one person is age 60 or older, or is disabled. This calculation does not include Supplemental Security Income, cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and most retirement and pension plans.

A strict household income limit is also part of eligibility. For a family of four to qualify for benefits, their gross income (before taxes) cannot exceed $2,633 per month, and the net monthly income (after taxes) cannot exceed $2,025. A household with a senior citizen receiving certain types of disability benefits only needs to satisfy the net monthly income test.

A critical component of eligibility for SNAP benefits, which could carry substantial consequences under the Trump Administration, is the requirement that the recipient meet work requirements. Work requirements now include registering for a job, not quitting a job, taking a job if offered and participating in workforce training programs established by the individual states. All non-disabled adults who have no dependents are required to either work or participate in workforce training for at least 20 hours per week to receive benefits for more than three months over a 36-month period.

These requirements are real and enforced by the government. Despite the claims of program critics, you don't just walk into a government office and get approved for benefits regardless of eligibility. Individual states have the responsibility to prosecute cases of fraud, which is a criminal act.

What can eligible households buy with SNAP benefits? Benefits can only purchase food for the family to eat. This restriction means that there are items participants cannot buy with their benefits, for example:

Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco

Non-food items such as pet food, household supplies, cleaning products, paper products and soap

Medicines and vitamins

Diapers and other non-food baby care necessities such as baby wipes

Recipients cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase food to be eaten in the store or prepared hot foods. Certain kinds of energy drinks are also prohibited.

Benefits are provided through a system known as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), which usually comes in the form of a debit card which is automatically reloaded every month. The card also filters out non-eligible items, so the recipient must pay for those another way at checkout.

President Trump Proposes Deep Cuts
The proposed changes to SNAP quickly emerged as one of the most controversial elements of the budget President Trump released in March. Trump proposed cutting program funding by over 25 percent, which would save an estimated $190 billion over the next decade. This cut is in addition to the current mandate to reduce USDA discretionary spending by approximately 20 percent. As they say in government, that's real money.

As always, the devil is in the details, and the underlying details of the actual mechanics of the decrease are just as important as the size of the overall proposed reduction. Two details in the Trump proposal, stricter work requirements and the removal of waivers for residents of specific counties, would have grave implications for specific areas of the country.

Waivers And Why They Are Important
For the past twenty years, the federal government has given waivers to economically distressed areas with high levels of unemployment. The idea behind the temporary waivers is simple. How can someone meet a work requirement when the economy is so bad that there isn't enough work to go around? This phenomenon is a serious unintended consequence of the "jobless recovery" to the recent recession.

The waivers are technically temporary, but during the recession nearly a decade ago almost every state received them at some point. In reality, most SNAP recipients were effectively exempt from the work requirements as recently as last year, when twenty-two states either lost or gave up their waivers. According to the Center for Budget Policy Priorities, a think tank that traditionally leans to the left politically, over one million people lost benefits in 2016, and the percentage of individuals living in waiver areas dropped from a high of 90 percent all the way down to 36.4 percent.[2] These changes represent a significant reduction in program coverage.

Because of the exemptions for senior citizens and the geography of the areas still suffering from a jobless recovery, the proposed SNAP cuts will disproportionately affect working-class whites without a college education, a demographic undeniably responsible for propelling Donald Trump into the White House. Here is where political considerations enter into the equation.

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