Researchers at Mathematica Policy Research published a brief last week summarizing an analysis that shows the impact of certain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) provisions in the House-passed Farm Bill. The analysis concluded that changes to countable resources and how states consider “broad-based categorical eligibility” in SNAP would result in 2 million fewer recipient households.
Several media outlets picked up on the analysis emphasizing the loss of SNAP for “millions of Americans.” Unaddressed was the context in which these changes were proposed, as well as the important policy questions that are raised. How much income should a household have and still be eligible for SNAP? How much in assets should a household be allowed to have? These details were largely ignored and deserve some consideration.
The Mathematica simulation covers what is called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” and states use it to work around asset and income limits in SNAP. The intent behind broad-based categorical eligibility (which dates back to welfare reform) is to ensure that recipients of government benefits (even if it does not involve cash) from other safety net programs like TANF are also eligible for SNAP. Originally designed as a way to align eligibility rules across programs, broad-based categorical eligibility has been used to eliminate asset tests and make certain households with income above the limit eligible for SNAP (130 percent of the federal poverty level).
Russell Sykes wrote a good explainer in 2016 (page 30):”The workaround on income rules confers eligibility to many households that otherwise would not be eligible for SNAP because their gross incomes exceed 130 percent of poverty.”