Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday led a coalition of nearly 140 House and Senate Democrats in calling on the Trump administration to rescind its proposed rule to slash food stamp eligibility, warning "millions of families will go hungry" if the policy takes effect.
"In a nation where the three wealthiest people own more wealth than the bottom half, increasing the barriers for hungry families is unconscionable," the members of Congress wrote in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
"If enacted, the Trump administration's own analysis of this rule estimates that 3.1 million people—nearly nine percent of SNAP recipients — would lose their benefits," the letter stated. "No one should go hungry in the United States of America."
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, told The Guardian Thursday that President Donald Trump's effort to slash nutrition assistance for millions of low-income Americans after cutting taxes for the rich shows the United States is rapidly "moving toward a system of oligarchy, where political decisions in Washington enrich the wealthy while devastating the poor."
"President Trump and the billionaires in his administration — after giving away over $1 trillion in tax cuts to mainly the rich and large corporations — are now trying to strip nutrition assistance from more than three million people," Sanders said. "At a time when 40 percent of families can't afford a $400 emergency and 13 million children live in poverty, this is an immoral and obscene decision."
The letter from congressional Democrats comes two weeks after Trump's USDA unveiled a rule that would end automatic food stamp eligibility for people receiving other forms of federal assistance.
The Trump administration presented its proposal, which is open for public comment, as an effort to root out "fraud." But lawmakers disputed that rationale in their letter to Perdue.
"USDA . . . erroneously asserts that higher income individuals take advantage of SNAP benefits," the letter stated. "In reality, fraud is virtually nonexistent in this program; just 0.2 percent of benefits mistakenly go to households with net incomes above the poverty line. Further, there are many more people who qualify for SNAP that are not enrolled in the program."
"USDA's resources would be better spent focusing on increasing participation among all who are eligible," the lawmakers continued, "rather than trying to limit participation among people who are already struggling."
A number of Sanders's rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination signed the letter, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).
Read the full letter:
Dear Secretary Perdue:
We are writing to oppose the disastrous rule to revise the use of broad-based categorical eligibility for the Supplemental Nurition Assistance Program (SNAP), which will make it harder for millions of families to get the nutrition assistance they need. If enacted, the Trump administration's own analysis of this rule estimates that 3.1 million people—nearly nine percent of SNAP recipients—would lose their benefits. No one should go hungry in the United States of America.
This plan would disproportionately punish working families who are already struggling to put food on the table and make ends meet. Today, more than 13 million American children live in poverty, more than one in five people experiencing homelessness are children, and the United States has the highest youth poverty rate and infant mortality rate among comparable nations. Currently, 84 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children, seniors, or a person with a disability, and 50 percent of children will receive SNAP at some point in their childhoods.
Families with children are more likely to face food insecurity, and in 2017, the number of families facing food insecurity rose for the first time since the Great Recession. Access to SNAP has been shown to improve health and educational outcomes for school children. Additionally, schools rely on SNAP enrollment when determining eligibility for free school meals, so households could be penalized twice: once with the loss of household SNAP benefits and again with the loss of free school meals for children. In fact, USDA estimates 500,000 children will lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals.
A recent study from the Urban Institute found that the average cost of a low-income meal was 27 percent higher than the maximum benefit. In order to cover the cost of food, USDA would need to increase the average benefit by about $46.50 per person per month. In addition, the USDA's estimate of how much low-income families should spend on food relies on unrealistic assumptions of food access and the amount of time low-income families have available to prepare meals.
Moreover, families must already go through a robust vetting process to verify income eligibility. USDA's assertion that families can simply receive an informational brochure in order to qualify for SNAP is simply not true. Perpetuating this lie breeds distrust in a successful program that lifted 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015. USDA also erroneously asserts that higher income individuals take advantage of SNAP benefits. In reality, fraud is virtually nonexistent in this program; just 0.2 percent of benefits mistakenly go to households with net incomes above the poverty line. Further, there are many more people who qualify for SNAP that are not enrolled in the program. USDA's resources would be better spent focusing on increasing participation among all who are eligible, rather than trying to limit participation among people who are already struggling.
In a nation where the three wealthiest people own more wealth than the bottom half, increasing the barriers for hungry families is unconscionable. Last year, the United Nations report by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights noted that "in a rich country like the United States, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power." With this proposal you are once again doubling down on that choice.
Millions of families will go hungry if your administration moves forward with this policy. We urge you to immediately rescind this shortsighted proposal. Thank you for your careful consideration of our comments.