By Brian Kennedy II
This blog was first published by the Progressive Pulse on July 31, 2019. Republished with permission.
The Trump administration recently announced a proposed rule change in the way the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formally known as Food Stamps) is administered. This change would take food assistance away from 3.1 million people and threaten the school meals of more than 500,000 children. This includes 106,000 North Carolinians, nearly 38,000 of whom are children. (1)
The administration wants to dramatically change a provision known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” (BBCE). While a majority of SNAP qualifications are set at the federal level, BBCE provides states with more flexibility in who can apply to receive food assistance. North Carolina has been a model on how to use BBCE to reduce hunger and hardship among struggling North Carolinians. This provision has allowed our state to slightly increase the income-eligibility limits so that low-income working families with children who have difficulty paying for necessities like child care or rent can still apply for food assistance. Additionally, the provision allows the state to modify the assets limits so that families, seniors, and people with a disability can have modest savings without losing SNAP.
Broad-based categorical eligibility is so effective because it actually builds the stepping stones families need to move out of poverty. Without this tool, many families find themselves in situations where saving for a car or receiving a raise at work actually makes them worse off financially, because they lose food benefits. According to a Fact Sheet from the Budget & Tax Center:
BBCE is an important tool in reducing the “benefit cliff”
Without BBCE, families who earn a raise at work or see a small increase in income are at risk of losing their SNAP benefits. Often times, the loss in benefits may be greater than the increase in income, effectively reducing the amount of resources in the household despite working hard to earn more. BBCE allows North Carolina to “phase down” benefits as families earn more, ensuring workers aren’t punished for doing well.
BBCE encourages savings and financial planning
Under regular SNAP regulations, most households are not allowed to have assets or savings that exceed $2,250. Under BBCE, North Carolina has eliminated those limits, allowing low-income families to save money in order to avoid debt, weather financial emergencies, and save to better support themselves during retirement.
BBCE reduces the state costs of administering SNAP
In North Carolina, case workers and county DSS offices are often overwhelmed with caseloads. BBCE simplifies the SNAP application process by eliminating the need for case workers to investigate household assets and often reduces the number of documents required to confirm eligibility. Just last month, the Mississippi Department of Human Services estimated eliminating BBCE would cost the state $1.5 million to implement.
In last year’s Farm Bill debate, Congress voted, on bi-partisan lines, to keep categorical eligibility as a part of the SNAP program. Two years ago leaders in North Carolina floated the idea of eliminating BBCE, but the idea was quickly rejected by legislators and constituents. Research has shown that broad-based categorical eligibility does not significantly increase program cost or participation, but rather gives states the tools they need to better implement and deliver food assistance.
The USDA is accepting comments on this proposal until September 23, 2019. To submit public comment about why categorical eligibility is so important, visit www.HandsOffSNAP.org.
Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.
 Special data request to NC Department of Health and Human Services. Data accessed June 7, 2019.