Protecting SNAP benefits for Hawaii’s working families and seniors

The Trump Administration is floating a proposed rule change that would take away food assistance benefits from struggling families. Late last month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule change that would take away Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance from an estimated 3 million people in the U.S. The proposed change must go through a public comment period, open through September 23rd, before it can go into effect. 

Submit a comment here.

This isn’t the first administrative rule change the administration has proposed that would restrict access to government benefits for those who need it most. The “Public Charge” rule change proposed in the fall of 2018 received tens of thousands of comments in opposition, but was posted to the federal registry today, and is therefore scheduled to go into effect on October 15. Despite the administration’s disregard for these comments, they have become a part of the official registry, and that can play a big role in reversing harmful policies like these in the future.

The Proposal

So what would this latest proposed rule change entail? The USDA wants to restrict a policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which is used by 40 states, including Hawaiʻi, as a means to expand the income cutoffs for SNAP eligibility. In states with high cost of living, like ours, this flexibility is particularly important because it means that working families don’t abruptly lose benefits when they earn slightly more money—what’s known as a “benefits cliff.” When this happens, a higher income can actually mean fewer resources overall, thereby creating disincentives for pursuing a better job.

Categorical eligibility also allows people to be eligible for SNAP even when they have certain assets, like a house or retirement savings, so that families, seniors, and people with disabilities aren’t at risk of losing their SNAP benefits if they save a little bit of money.

Hawaiʻi Impact

It’s hard to say exactly how many people in Hawaiʻi will be impacted by this rule if it goes into effect, but we can make some estimations. The USDA estimates that 9 percent of households will lose eligibility which, in Hawaiʻi, would translate to 7,200 households, 14,000 people, and $3.4 million in federal revenue for our state.

Seniors will be particularly harmed by this new rule. Many seniors are living on fixed incomes, but may have assets—like a retirement account or a home that they own—that would restrict their eligibility without this waiver.

In addition, this rule, if it goes into effect, will affect the number of children who have access to free school meals. This works in a couple of different ways:

  • Children in SNAP-participating households are automatically eligible for free meals at school—no application required. These children would no longer have access to this benefit if their household loses eligibility for SNAP.

  • Second, Hawaiʻi has been taking full advantage of what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision—a waiver that allows schools located in communities where 40 percent or more of the households use SNAP to offer 100 percent free meals to all students. This helps even those students who might not live in SNAP households, but whose parents may be struggling no less.

With 48 percent of our island population living paycheck-to-paycheck, we can’t afford to cut these critical benefits. Doing so could lead to a cascading benefit cliff that would have serious, adverse effects on families.

What You Can Do

The USDA is currently accepting public comment through September 23. Officials have to read every comment that is submitted, so it’s important that they hear from you about why this rule is harmful and should be opposed. 

You can comment directly through the Federal Register, or you can visit Feeding America, the Center for American Progress, and the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC)‘s digital comment platforms, all of which have talking points you can use to make this process as easy as possible.