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How Will Trump Change Nutrition Assistance Programs?

As the government transitions, many advocates are concerned about the future of benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

(Photo: Unsplash; Edited: LW / TO)

As the government transitions, many advocates are concerned about the future of benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps” — under a Republican-dominated Congress and White House.

Given that conservatives have historically been hostile to government benefits programs, pushing to curtail or eliminate them, those are some valid concerns. The implications of a conservative government for entitlement programs could be huge. Even when these initiatives are administered by state governments, they take cues and set policy under federal guidance.

The White House itself doesn’t establish the policies that govern the distribution of nutrition assistance, but it has tremendous influence on Congress, which does. Currently, SNAP is bound up in the annual Farm Bill, a massive, labyrinthine document that covers a range of agriculture and nutrition issues. The bill will be up for renewal in 2018.

The president-elect has historically indicated that he believes benefits programs are rife with fraud and demanded reform. Meanwhile, the party platform called for decoupling SNAP from the Farm Bill.

For the record, the USDA indicates that SNAP fraud is extremely low and much of the blame lies on retailers, not recipients.

While the Farm Bill is written in Congress, internal documents indicate the White House wants to take a more active role — and you can bet SNAP will be on the table. If cut, the program will be even more vulnerable to defunding.

Trump, like other Republicans, also supports cutting government spending.

Under the Obama Administration, investment in anti-poverty programs like SNAP went up, and Congress may be interested in reducing their funding to cut costs. While the president-elect won’t be the one in charge of that change, Trump’s campaign promises to pressure Congress and make good on his pledge to eliminate government waste. Similarly, many Republicans in Congress campaigned for their seats with promises that they would reduce spending on entitlement programs, so they feel they have a mandate from constituents.

Though the president-elect hadn’t selected a candidate for Secretary of Agriculture as of late Thursday, that, too, could influence the future of nutrition assistance. This includes not just SNAP, but also programs like free and reduced lunch in schools along with Women, Infants, Children (WIC) and a host of other benefit programs designed to keep America fed.

An Agriculture secretary hostile to such benefits programs could create an agency-wide mandate for cuts and eligibility changes that might make it harder for hungry people to get the support they need.

But there’s another reason to be worried.

As ThinkProgress reports, individual states set out their own requirements for nutrition assistance programs, and many emboldened legislators and governors are taking the Republican sweep of federal government as a mandate. They hope to restrict the types of items that people can purchase on benefits, a kind of “poverty policing” that’s popular because it allows politicians to claim they’re taking a tough-on-spending stance.

For benefits recipients, however, the changes can be humiliating and create problems with accessing necessary nutrition, especially in food deserts. For people with complex food needs and allergies, some banned “luxury items” are actually quite necessary for their survival. For instance, it can be tough to purchase gluten-free or dairy-free goods when restrictions become arcane.

The person who approves these “waivers” to the federal standards? The Secretary of Agriculture.

Fortunately, many of these proposals are actually costly and impractical, making them ill-advised from a technical standpoint. However, if moral outrage about “waste” becomes the rule of the day at the USDA, conservative states might have better luck pushing bizarre restrictions through, creating a nightmare for shoppers, as well as stores that accept SNAP and other nutrition benefits.

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