On Thanksgiving Day, here’s one thing not to give thanks for. In early October, the Trump administration released its third of (thus far) three U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules to cut $4.5 billion in Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly call “food stamps,” over five years. Although SNAP is federally funded, counties administer SNAP and other USDA nutrition assistance programs, and State agencies supervise the counties.
The latest proposed rule would change the formula used to calculate benefits. It appears to bypass that State and local decision making. As IATP noted in its comment on the third proposed rule, USDA claims to have found a legal justification not to meet with State or county officials prior to releasing the rule for comment. USDA asks only whether the rule will pose “administrative challenges” for States and local governments, and not whether these governments will have to compensate for the SNAP cuts from their own funds. In August, a U.S. Conference of Mayors letter with 70 mayoral signatories protested cuts to SNAP that would result from the second rule.
Nor did the USDA consult with Native American tribes about this proposed rule, as is required by a presidential Executive Order. According to the Native Farm Bill Coalition, “In some tribal communities [SNAP household] participation is as high as 60 to 80 percent.” In April, the National Congress of American Indians wrote of the second proposed SNAP rule, “USDA fell short of its federal trust responsibilities by failing to engage in meaningful consultation with tribal nations."
USDA claims the third rule will ensure “benefit equity” among all states and “improve program integrity.” USDA will require States to use a standardized formula for calculating the cost of heating, cooling and other utilities used to determine SNAP recipients’ eligibility for benefits. USDA estimates that the deduction in SNAP benefits from what USDA allows SNAP households to pay for water, gas, heat and other utilities will result in reduced SNAP benefits in 29 states while increasing them in 22, with a net $1 billion in SNAP cuts. (Apparently for SNAP purposes, Puerto Rico counts as a state.) On the basis of the proposed rule, IATP could not determine how USDA calculates which states would experience SNAP cuts and which would see very modest increases.
USDA uses just two studies to substantiate what seems less like a rule than a preliminary notice of rule making. A proposed rule would have included proposed text, illustrations of how the Standardized Utility Allowance formula was determined and a description of how the formula would be applied to cold weather states vs. warm weather states. There would have been a full cost benefit analysis, including an estimate of economic multiplier benefits lost due to the SNAP reductions. One of the studies was outsourced to the Econometrica consultancy, which developed the data basis for the USDA decisions about the Standardized Utility Allowance.
USDA made no use of its own Economic Research Service (ERS) studies, such as one that estimates the impact of SNAP spending on the U.S. economy and job creation, to determine how much communities would lose from the SNAP cuts under the proposed rules. Indeed, the USDA Fiscal Year 2020 Budget not only would eliminate ERS research into SNAP and other federal food assistance programs, but also would eliminate the SNAP Policy Data Base. Apparently, under Secretary Sonny Perdue’s reorganization of USDA, the data basis for future decisions SNAP and other food assistance programs will be outsourced to consultants working according to the Secretary’s terms of reference.
As IATP emphasized in its comment, $4.5 billion cuts to SNAP households might not be devastating if SNAP benefits were large enough to enable SNAP households to buy nutritious food and become food secure. However, SNAP benefits are apportioned equally to each state, regardless of the cost of food in that state and are not adjusted for inflation. As a result, according to the Food Research and Action Center, the food purchasing power of SNAP benefits has been declining for years: “Researchers, advocates, food pantries, and SNAP participants have been saying for years that SNAP benefits are inadequate, and, in 2013, after a thorough study, the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM) outlined the factors that explain why the SNAP allotment is not enough to get most families through the month with a minimally adequate diet. These factors include, among others, the lag in SNAP benefits keeping up with inflation; households’ shelter costs that consume income that SNAP rules incorrectly treat as available for food purchases (therefore reducing SNAP allotments); and the cost-time trade-offs in obtaining a nutritious diet.” Among FRAC’s priorities is to reform USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan,” which USDA characterizes as providing adequate nutrition, contrary to the IOM report and academic research.
Policy and legislative fixes to SNAP’s declining purchasing power have been proposed, including by the ERS, which USDA studiously ignores while carrying out what Sen. Debbie Stabenow has called the ERS’s “demolition” by Secretary Perdue and his congressional allies.
What do you if you are ideologically opposed to SNAP and other food assistance, but you cannot make ideology the basis for a federal rule? You must demolish the research and data that could otherwise show your rulemaking to be “arbitrary and capricious,” and therefore violating the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as the Food and Nutrition Act, the statutory basis for SNAP. Post-destruction, you can order up whatever study and data you want from consultancies and think tanks to justify the budget cuts the Secretary makes in the name of “benefit equity” and “program integrity.”
If Americans think about USDA during the Thanksgiving holiday, it is to go online to USDA’s Hotline to find out how to cook the iconic bird of the feast. But this holiday, we should give thanks for what State agencies, counties, private food pantries and SNAP participants will do and have done to compensate for the loss of already inadequate SNAP benefits. And then we should use FRAC’s Action Center to comment on this PR to rule reduce SNAP food benefits.