A senior Agriculture Department official rejected House Democrats’ demands that USDA pull back a proposal to reduce income eligibility limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in many states. 

During a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., and other Democrats said they are deeply concerned about the new definition and the way it tightens eligibility requirements for individuals.

The proposed rule, released in July, would redefine categorical eligibility provisions that allow people to automatically receive SNAP benefits if they receive any benefits or services through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The net effect of the existing provisions is to allow states to have SNAP eligibility limits of up to 200% of the federal poverty line. 

Bishop said the 2018 farm bill did not have the tightened eligibility criteria and accused USDA of going around congressional authority.

“(This is) a move that could kick an estimated 3.1 million off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and jeopardize school meals for almost a million children,” Bishop said at a hearing with Brandon Lipps, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. 

School means would be affected by the rule because kids in households that are eligible for SNAP are automatically eligible for free schools. Under the proposal, children in households that become ineligible for SNAP would have to apply separately to get free or reduced-price school meals 

Bishop asked Lipps if the department would temporarily suspend the rule after FNS released an analysis on the impact of the program Tuesday. 

“The department’s own analysis says the rule will drop 9% of the current recipients from the roles. Including 13.2% of all households with one or more elderly person and 7.4% of households with children,” Bishop said.

Lipps defended the administration’s move to tighten requirements and said they would be moving forward with the proposed rule.

“Categorical eligibility will be maintained in the form it existed prior to the expansion of categorical eligibility to qualifying people by the receipt of a brochure,” Lipps said. He said that expansion of eligibility had cast a “negative reflection” on the program.

The USDA analysis estimated that 982,000 children would no longer be automatically eligible for free school meals. But 445,000 of those kids could still be eligible for free meals, if they applied for the program, according to the analysis. As many as 497,000 would be eligible for reduced-price meals. 

The remaining 40,000 children would not qualify for reduced-price meals because their family incomes exceed 185% of the federal poverty line, the analysis said. 

However, the analysis noted that some of those kids and the children who would only be eligible for reduced-price meals could continue to get meals at no charge if their schools are participating in a “community eligibility” provision that allows some low-income school districts to offer free meals to all students. 

The subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, defended the USDA proposal.

“If a person has access to meaningful and reasonable work, empowering them for that transition is also a part of fundamental fairness so that nothing is wasted and taken away from those in need,” Fortenberry said.

USDA is also reopening the comment period for fourteen days to provide people an opportunity to review the document as part of the rulemaking record.

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