A proposal that passed the U.S. House Agriculture Committee Thursday could kick as many as three million people off government food assistance next year, including the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
As part of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012, the committee recommended cutting funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) by $16 billion over 10 years.
Most of the savings would be achieved by doing away with categorical eligibility, or the practice of waiving an asset test if recipients qualify for other government welfare programs. About half of current SNAP recipients were ushered in because they receive non-cash benefits from the government like help with bus fare and child care, according to the Congressional Budget Office. More than 40 states use categorical eligibility to dole out food stamps.
Under the House's proposal, families would have to make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line, have less than $2,000 in resources and meet other minimum federal eligibility standards. Tightening the eligibility requirements would shave about 4 percent — between two and three million people — off SNAP's caseload every year, according to CBO and White House estimates.
"If you need food stamps, you should meet the criteria," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Wednesday.
"I want poor people to have food," Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said. "I want children to eat well."
Advocates for the poor argue, though, the changes will cut off families that need help.
Families that own a modestly priced car or have more than $2,000 in savings will no longer qualify, analysts Dorothy Rosenbaum and Stacey Dean wrote in a policy brief for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But many of the working poor need a car to get to work.
"On average, the families above that limit who qualify for SNAP as a result of categorical eligibility have combined child care and rent costs that exceed half of their wages," Rosenbaum and Dean wrote. "The $100 per month in SNAP benefits that they receive covers about one-fifth of their monthly food budget."
The committee also approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., requiring state agencies to verify applicants' immigration status before passing out benefits.
Roby proposed the amendment in an effort to crack down on fraud, she said in a news release. In a recent study of five states, the Office of the Inspector General of the USDA found 8,594 families had enrolled in SNAP using potentially invalid Social Security numbers. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for most social welfare programs, including SNAP, but some of their U.S.-born children are. Under Roby's proposal, Americans would be denied assistance if they shared a household with anyone who was not authorized to live in the United States.
“Benefits funded by American taxpayers should go to American citizens," Roby said. "It is reasonable to require that an individual be a U.S. citizen or an eligible applicant in order to receive federal benefits."
Immigrant advocates recoiled at the amendment.
"This amendment is plainly directed at the children of undocumented immigrants," wrote Sarah Jane Glynn, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The move is "utterly unnecessary," she argued, because the children who receive the SNAP benefits must already meet eligibility requirements, including proving citizenship or legal authorization to be in the country. Illegal immigrant parents who are struggling to feed their U.S. citizen children are already less likely to apply for food aid.
"Forcing household members who would not be receiving nutrition assistance benefits to prove their legal status would be antithetical to the goals of the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, which is to provide critical nutrition benefits to American citizens who might otherwise go hungry," she wrote.
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