Economy & Business

The Right Move on Food Stamps

(Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

The Trump administration has proposed a reform to the food-stamp program, one that is both faithful to the law and good policy in itself. The president should proceed with the new rule over objections from the left.

The issue is “categorical eligibility.” The law states that when a household “receives benefits” through the nation’s major cash-welfare program, it doesn’t have to go through the full process of proving it’s also eligible for food stamps.

In recent decades, states have run wild with this language, providing trivial “benefits” for the sole purpose of making more households eligible for food stamps. This can be as little as a welfare brochure or a phone number to an information hotline. With these “benefits” in hand, food-stamp applicants no longer have to pass an asset test, and also can have incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level instead of 130 percent.

That this makes a mockery of the law goes without saying. The point of categorical eligibility is to eliminate redundant paperwork proving that a family is poor enough to qualify for assistance. The point is not to let states override the eligibility rules for food stamps, a federally funded program, whenever they feel like it — at the expense of taxpayers in other states.

The Trump administration estimates that once this loophole is closed, approximately 9 percent of households on food stamps, comprising 3.1 million individuals, will no longer qualify because they fail the asset or income tests. But such a trim would hardly put the program at cruelly low levels of enrollment. The number of recipients grew dramatically in the 2000s even before the recession hit — from about 17.2 million in 2000 to about 26.5 million in 2006 — and reached a high-water mark of 47.6 million in 2013. As of April of this year, it was still at 36 million, roughly where it had been in the 2009–10 period and more than double the enrollment in 2000.

The administration itself concedes that the measure could marginally increase “food insecurity,” a broad term that, contrary to what Politico’s headline-writers would have you believe, is not synonymous with “hunger.” Frankly, the turn of the century was not a time of mass starvation in America, and the people removed from the program will be those with the highest incomes and assets.

If states think the eligibility criteria for food stamps are somehow too strict, they are free to spend their own money to solve the problem, or to lobby Congress for more generous income and asset thresholds. They should not be free to hand out magic brochures that make the rules disappear.