For years, many conservative states have tried to enact policies that would effectively restrict the number of people using food stamps and how they can use those benefits. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) often blocked those attempts out of concern that they would either be ineffective, too expensive, difficult to enforce or illegal.
That’s about to change.
The USDA is preparing to give states “new flexibility” in administering food stamps, which is properly called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In a letter to SNAP directors on Nov. 30, a USDA administrator promised increased federal cooperation with states to reduce fraud, promote employment, and improve customer service for food stamp recipients.
In the letter, Brandon Lipps, administrator of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, called states "laboratories of innovation" and invited their ideas on how to improve the nutrition program so long as proposed changes "do not increase costs to taxpayers or our various partners on the ground."
The letter from Lipps is likely a prelude to changes Republican leadership in Congress and the White House will consider next year that remove people from the nation’s welfare programs.
As we previously reported, President Trump wants to tighten food stamps' eligibility rules and wants states to start matching federal SNAP dollars. He has also called for shrinking federal grants to states for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, better known as cash welfare). The administration has also signaled its intent to allow work requirements for Medicaid, the nation's health insurance program for the poor.
“We’re encouraged by a lot of what we’re seeing,” says Wisconsin Medicaid Director Michael Heifetz, who also oversees the state's SNAP program. “We’re looking for concrete signs that the things that they have been talking about since coming into office -- and things that we’ve been looking for for a long time -- are truly happening.”
Wisconsin is one of the states that already has proposals in the pipeline that are likely to gain approval soon under the Trump administration. Gov. Scott Walker has asked for permission to drug test people who apply for food stamps. He also hopes to make employment a condition for parents with school-age children to qualify for food stamps. Currently, the work requirement in Wisconsin -- and the rest of the country -- only applies to adults who do not have children in their care.
Maine is another state that has already previewed what it might do with a more willing partner in Washington. When testifying before Congress last year, Mary Mayhew, the state's commissioner of Health and Human Services at the time, said Gov. Paul LePage wanted tighter limits on how many household members could use the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that store SNAP benefits.
She also said that when people lose at least two of those cards, they should have to come to a government office and verify their identity in person. And when states learn that a store facilitates SNAP fraud, Mayhew said states should have the ability to block those stores from participating in SNAP -- something that currently requires federal action.
The USDA's announcement coincided with a national conference for the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, which includes state appointees who oversee welfare programs for Republican governors. The group met last week with federal agriculture officials and the U.S. House Commitee on Ways and Means.
What exactly will result from those discussions isn’t clear, but states expect another letter in the coming weeks with more specific guidance, says Jason Turner, executive director of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group.
Past statements and white papers from the Secretaries' Innovation Group may provide a window into other ideas that states would present to their federal partners next year. The group advocates for the federal government preventing people from buying unhealthy items with food stamps. The group also calls for switching SNAP from an entitlement program -- where spending rises with demand -- into a block-grant program -- where each state gets a fixed amount, regardless of need. The group would like to end the practice of waiving work requirements for people who don't find a job during a down economy. And the group has recommended the elimination of "broad-based categorical eligibility," a streamlining tool most states use to approve SNAP applications for people who have already been vetted for another welfare program.
Some of these ideas have already been tried in the TANF program and encountered pushback not just from anti-poverty advocates but also from the courts.
A federal court, for instance, struck down Florida's law requiring drug tests for cash welfare recipients in 2014, ruling that it violated the Fourth Amendment.
Critics also argue that welfare drug tests are evidence that few people on the program are drug users. Last year, 13 states spent $1.3 million drug testing TANF recipients and turned up positive results for less than 2 percent of those tested, according to the liberal news site ThinkProgress.
The general idea of helping food stamp users find work has bipartisan support, but the question is how to most effectively increase employment, says Russell Sykes, who runs an employment policy center for the American Public Human Services Association. If states strengthen their work requirements, will they also expand job search and training programs to make sure people can find work?
"I don’t think on principle anyone would contend that we shouldn’t be helping them get a job, but it doesn’t just happen because that’s what you want," Sykes says.
Currently, the federal government sends about $90 million a year to states for SNAP employment and training programs, which critics say is not enough to meet the need. (When it comes to TANF, which currently places a greater emphasis on work than SNAP, states were spending less than 10 percent of their welfare funding on job-related services in 2015.) States can unlock additional federal matching dollars if they invest more of their own money, but most states don't spend enough to take advantage of the option.
"If you’re not going to put the resources necessary to serve a huge new amount of people," Sykes says, "then you’re in danger of turning SNAP into a sanction program" where low-income households lose food assistance. "I don’t think that’s what anyone wants."