White House plan: Cut food stamp eligibility, give people a box of food

President Trump would slash food stamp spending by 30 percent over the next decade by cutting enrollment 10 percent and giving recipients half of their benefits in a monthly box of U.S.-grown food. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the “America’s Harvest Box” was “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food” that would cost far less than the current system of letting food stamp participants buy food on their own.

The Harvest Box would save $129 billion over a decade, the largest part of 15 proposed cuts in food stamps that would total $213 billion, topping the $193 billion that was proposed last spring. Some 4 million people would lose benefits, according to an estimate by the think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. At latest count, 41.7 million people received food stamps, with an average benefit of $124 a month.

Congress is unlikely to enact many of Trump’s budget proposals this year, said Robert Greenstein, head of the center. “But the budget shows what the President intends to seek if his party retains control of the House in November and picks up a seat or two in the Senate.”

While the administration said the Harvest Box would reduce fraud, Jim Weill of the antihunger Food Research and Action Center likened it to “a Rube Goldberg-designed system … that will be administratively costly, inefficient, stigmatizing and prone to failure.” He called it a Depression-era relic.

In a one-page description, the USDA says about 80 percent of food stamp households, those that see at least $90 a month in benefits, would become part of the Harvest Box program. The program would ultimately represent “half of their benefits.” The remainder of benefits would be available, as now, through so-called EBT cards. The Harvest Box would contain processed and canned goods, “such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.” The USDA says the program would run “at approximately half the retail cost.”

“States will be given substantial flexibility to distribute these food benefits to participants. States can distribute these boxes through existing infrastructure, partnerships, and-or directly to residences through commercial and-or retail delivery services,” said the USDA.

Speaking for grocers, the Food Marketing Institute questioned if the food box plan would pay off: “Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings. As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, said she had “many questions about the administration’s alarming SNAP proposal.”

The administration also proposed restrictions on the use of so-called categorical eligibility to open the way to food stamps for people enrolled in social welfare programs; fewer waivers of the 90-day limit on benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs); and elimination of the minimum benefit of $16. Stacy Dean, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said 1.7 million people would be affected by the categorical eligibility proposal, at least 1 million by the ABAWD limits and 1 million by the end of a minimum default payment.

In addition, the administration said it wanted to count people up to age 62 as ABAWDs, instead of the current age limit of 50, to eliminate a utility allowance when calculating benefits, and to limit households to a maximum of six people collecting benefits.

Perdue has said that the government should help “those truly in need” to get enough food, but that it also should “support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being and economic mobility.” Similarly, House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway has a goal of “meaningful reforms” of food stamps in the 2018 farm bill, particularly in work requirements.