More than 300,000 Texans could lose food assistance benefits under proposed changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to statistics from Governing Magazine.
The estimated 302,800 Texans affected is the highest number of vulnerable SNAP recipients in any state in the nation, according to the magazine. It constitutes 7.5% of all Texas residents who get aid through the program, which is better known as food stamps. In only four states is the percentage higher, and 10% of all people likely to be kicked off of support are right here in the Lone Star State.
The magazine's estimates are based on a combination of White House estimates for states with categorical eligibility and the most recent SNAP enrollment data.
The change could impact such a large number of Texans because of a difference between state and federal requirements. Most states, including Texas, use an allowance called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which gives them the ability to adjust qualifications for food stamps based on the needs of state residents and local demographics.
The newly proposed regulations would require states to adhere to federally set guidelines, regardless of state-to-state variations in cost of living and other factors.
Texas is one of a handful of states that factor in the value of a family's car when it decides who can qualify for SNAP assistance. To be screened for eligibility, an applicant's car must be worth $15,000 or less; the federal government requires that a vehicle be assessed at no more than $4,650, or $10,350 less than the current limit. Regardless of their other assets, those with a car worth more than that could not qualify for assistance.
Cutting the vehicle value requirement to roughly 30% of what it is now would be the decisive factor for the majority of those recipients who would become ineligible for assistance, said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Texas branch of the Center for Public Policy Priorities' Health and Wellness Team.
SNAP recipients in Texas between the ages of 16 and 59 are also required to work 30 hours a week, to be enrolled in SNAP's jobs training and search program or be disabled. Since there are very limited public transportation options in Texas, having a car is crucial for most people who hold jobs.
To put the $4,650 maximum number somewhat in context: the used car retailer CarMax lists only five cars under $10,000 in its most recent list of the 130 best cars. These aren't the only cars available, and the purchase price of a car is not necessarily equal to its value, but it is worth noting that of those five cars, none is available for less than $8,000. In the Dallas area right now, the cheapest of these cars available for purchase is the two-seat 2014 Smart Fortwo Passion (Smart Car) for $7,998. Many families need a more substantial vehicle and would be hard-pressed to trade down for a lesser vehicle if they were required to do so to hold onto government assistance.
It's hard to get a reliable car for under $5,000, Cooper said. And if you don't have a dependable car, you can't get to work. If you can't get to work, you can't get or keep a job. If you don't have a job, you can't get SNAP assistance. For many people, no SNAP assistance means it would be hard to eat, she said.
Texas residents can be screened to receive benefits through the SNAP program if they make less than 165% of the federal poverty income threshold or $35,000 a year for a family of three, meet the state working requirements, have less than $5,000 in cash assets and own a vehicle under the restricted value. Those who meet these requirements can be assessed to receive assistance, which is determined on a case-by-case basis depending on income and basic expenses.
Federal guidelines cap SNAP assistance at individuals and families who make less than 130% of the federal poverty income threshold. Texas recipients making between 130% and 165% of that amount per year would be dropped from the program under the new proposal, which concerns Valerie Hawthorne, government relations director for North Texas Food Banks.
The food bank serves anyone who is food insecure. Its clientele includes the working poor, those who do not work, the elderly, children and others who for one reason or another find themselves without enough food. The new regulations would increase strain on food banks, Hawthorne said.
“Just because you remove somebody doesn't mean they're not hungry,” she said.
Since paying rent and mortgages is essential, food is one of the places people begin to compromise when they lose options for access to nutritious food. They turn to McDonald's and fruit gummies instead of fresh fruit, Hawthorne said.
She worries that cuts to SNAP recipients will result in more people who are forced to get by on low-quality food. Poor nutrition negatively impacts attention and alertness, medical and dental health, and energy levels.
“If you pull one little piece out of the puzzle, things start to fall down,” Hawthorne said.
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President Donald Trump says that SNAP enrollment is at a 10-year low, which is true, according to PolitiFact, although possibly only because last February's government shutdown made it hard to receive help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program, argues that this change will simply further streamline the program.
What hasn't gone down over the last decade though, said Cooper, is food insecurity. But, by the White House's estimate, the new plan would result in an estimated 3.1 million people who no longer qualify for assistance.
“It's all about shrinking the program and making it harder to qualify,” Cooper said.
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