McClatchy: Florida, like Trump, considered saving money by cutting food stamps
WASHINGTON - It’s not just President Donald Trump trying to cut back on food stamps.
Months before Trump submitted a federal budget that would ax $193 billion from the benefits program, Florida lawmakers earlier this year tried – and failed – to cut money from the state’s share of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, pushing legislation that would have cut off all but the neediest families.
On the federal level, Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would slash about 25 percent of the budget from the program, known as SNAP, over the next decade. Citing decreases in unemployment coupled with “persistently high” SNAP participation since the onset of the recession, Trump’s budget specifically calls for closing eligibility loopholes and requiring able-bodied adults who receive SNAP benefits to work.
Many Democrats in Congress are decrying the proposal. But the idea has some traction outside Washington, evidence that Trump’s message of protecting taxpayers from spending too much on entitlement programs for the poor is echoed around the country.
In Florida, state lawmakers attempted to restrict SNAP eligibility earlier this year with legislation that would have limited food stamps to families that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,633 a month for a family of four. Currently, the state’s gross income limit is 200 percent or less than that of the federal poverty level.
SNAP participation nationally has reached its lowest levels since July 2010, with Florida losing nearly 11 percent of participants since January of last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. State Republicans attributed this decline to Florida’s improved 4.5 percent unemployment rate.
“It’s an acknowledgment of unemployment going from over 12 percent to around 4 percent,” said Republican State Rep. Frank White, whose legislation would have taken nearly 230,000 enrollees off food stamps. The bill passed two committees along party lines but died prior to reaching the Florida House floor.
While the unemployment rate strongly correlates with food stamp usage, Ellen Vollinger, legal director with the Food and Research Action Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty-related hunger, said states with sharp declines in participation such as Florida have legal provisions that disproportionately restrict access to needy people who have trouble re-entering the workforce.
Under the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton, food stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents must meet work requirements such as unsubsidized paid employment or subsidized employment and on-the-job training unless granted a waiver by the state. Those who do not meet the requirements can only receive SNAP benefits for up to three months out of every three years.
Florida implemented a waiver in 2009 to allow more assistance, but improvement in the economy caused statewide eligibility for the waiver to expire in December 2015 and enrollment in SNAP fell.
“Even where there are still great numbers of people lacking jobs, we’re still seeing people cut off in those areas. That’s a troubling trend,” Vollinger said. She said it’s incumbent upon states to ensure those who live in high jobless areas or work part-time still receive benefits.
A 2016 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, found 22 states, like Florida, where new time limits were being imposed on SNAP participation after waivers expired.
SNAP proponents find themselves pushing in the opposite direction of Trump’s budget, arguing for increased funding for the $70 billion annual program and the relaxation of eligibility requirements.
Florida Republican State Representative Thad Altman, who voted against White’s bill in committee, said, “The way we measure the federal poverty level, nationally, is somewhat flawed.” The threshold is too low, he said, and “there needs to be some sort of safety net,” in concern to federal funding of SNAP.
Some in Congress agree. U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced legislation this spring that, among other things, exempts able-bodied adults from work requirements if their state does not provide positions in SNAP employment and training programs. The bill also calls for raising the minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $25 a month.
“SNAP benefits are just not enough for those who struggle to put food on the table,” Adams said in a press release.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., a member of the House Agriculture committee, said the more than half a million Floridians who fall under the able-bodied working adults designation either don’t receive the training they need or are unaware they need to do the training, a trend he called “disturbing.”
Some Florida Republicans, including White, disagree.
“That’s a population that should be leading lives of self-sufficiency, not dependency,” White said, echoing similar sentiments from Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney.
“We cannot continue to simply measure our compassion or our success by the amount of money we spend,” Mulvaney said during a press conference last month. “We're going to measure our passion and our success by actually helping people and by respecting the taxpayers who paid for it in the first place.”
Trump’s proposed budget establishes a matching program where states would begin to subsidize 10 percent of benefit costs starting in 2020 and 25 percent by 2023. Additionally, new flexibilities that allow states to control benefit rates and manage costs would be considered under the budget.
White said he plans on pursuing to adjust Florida’s food stamp program if Trump’s budget passes in its current form but would wait for public reaction to the Senate’s potential amendments before moving forward.