In its latest effort to shrink enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Trump administration is proposing to remove up to 3 million people from the rolls by tightening eligibility rules that allow many states to sign up people with incomes that exceed federal limits. 

A proposed rule released Tuesday would rewrite categorical eligibility provisions allowing people to automatically receive SNAP benefits if they receive any benefits or services through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In many states, the service consists of as little as a brochure or hotline referral.

The practical impact of broad-based categorical eligibility is to allow people to qualify for SNAP at state income limits, which can be up to 200% of the federal poverty level. The federal limit is 130%, or $2,720 a month for a family of four. 

In states as varied as California and West Virginia, residents can qualify for SNAP at the 200% income limit if they receive a TANF brochure. In Vermont, someone can qualify at the 185% limit if they receive a bookmark that has a phone number and website for TANF services.

Conservatives have tried unsuccessfully through successive farm bill debates to tighten categorical eligibility rules. A millionaire in Minnesota recently testified before Congress about his success in using the provisions to qualify for SNAP.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that the proposal, which would save an estimated $2.5 billion a year, “better aligns SNAP with other means-tested programs nationwide.”

Perdue in December proposed to make it harder for states to get waivers from SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents at home. USDA has not yet finalized that rule, which would save an estimated $15 billion over 10 years. 

The latest proposal is coming out a day after the White House angered some budget hawks by reaching agreement with congressional Democrats to increase spending levels for the next two years, lift the federal debt limit and eliminate automatic spending cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act. 

Under the agreement, spending on non-defense “discretionary” programs, those subject to annual appropriations, would increase by $56.5 billion over the next two years above the 2019 level, $10 billion more than defense spending would grow.

Anti-hunger advocates argue the working poor would be hit hardest by the latest USDA proposal, because the “broad-based” categorical eligibility rules allow low-income people to increase their earnings somewhat without losing SNAP benefits. 

Under new standards proposed by USDA, states could provide automatic SNAP eligibility only to household that receive TANF-funded cash or non-cash benefits valued at a minimum of $50 per month for at least 6 months. The non-cash benefits would be limited to subsidized employment, work supports, or child care.

The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., accused the administration of ignoring the intent of Congress. 

“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. This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals, and make it harder for states to administer food assistance,” she said. 

Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and advocacy group, said the proposal would likely “take basic food assistance away from working families, seniors, and people with disabilities, and make it harder for struggling people to make ends meet.”

SNAP enrollment has been dropping steadily as the economy has grown and dipped below 36 million in April, the latest month for which data has been released. 

USDA will take public comment on the proposal for 60 days, starting Wednesday.

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