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House Hearing Today to Highlight Successes of SNAP “Categorical Eligibility”

June 20, 2019 at 10:30 AM

A House Agriculture subcommittee will hear testimony today about a Trump Administration plan to roll back an important state option (“categorical eligibility”) that lets states tailor their SNAP (food stamp) income and asset limits to provide modest help to certain low-income households — mainly working families, seniors, and people with disabilities — to afford food. Though Congress on a bipartisan basis has repeatedly rejected proposals to roll back the option, most recently in the farm bill that it enacted just six months ago, the Administration says it will try to implement the change through executive action.

Categorical eligibility has been a success for 20 years. More than 40 states have adopted it to make SNAP more responsive to the needs of households, specifically those working their way up the economic ladder or saving to invest in the future or avoid a financial crisis.

The option:

  • Helps working families by eliminating the “benefit cliff.” SNAP supports work in part by ensuring that its benefits phase down gradually (by only 24 to 36 cents for each dollar of increased earnings). But as we’ve explained, without categorical eligibility a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small increase in earnings that raises its gross income to over 130 percent of the federal poverty line, the threshold for SNAP eligibility. Categorical eligibility lets states lift this threshold, which lets households close to that threshold take higher-paying work and continue to benefit from SNAP.
  • Lets low-income households save for the future. Modest assets enable low-income families avoid debt, weather unexpected financial disruptions, and better prepare to support themselves in retirement. Under categorical eligibility, which lets states increase or eliminate asset limits for SNAP, low-income households are likelier to have a bank account and have at least $500 in it, according to a recent Urban Institute study.
  • Simplifies SNAP administration. Categorical eligibility reduces the complexity of the SNAP application process for states and households. It also lowers “churn” — when SNAP households that stop participating in SNAP reapply within a very short period. Churn creates added work for state workers and benefit gaps for SNAP households.

Categorical eligibility modestly broadens SNAP’s reach to help meet the needs of certain working families, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Policymakers have long sought to help low-income households, especially those working and those saving in order to maintain their independence. This important state option makes SNAP more responsive to these two groups. Rolling it back, as the Trump Administration seeks to do, would be a step in the wrong direction.

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