Perhaps you’ve read that President Trump is about to toss millions of the poor off food stamps for no other reason than cruelty. You wouldn’t know from this faux horror that the Trump Administration is merely policing a blatant abuse of public resources for the needy.

The Agriculture Department last week outlined changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. The program covered an average 39.7 million people at an annual cost of $64.9 billion in 2018. That number hasn’t declined as fast as you’d expect given 10 years of economic growth and a tight labor market. Recipients averaged 28.2 million in 2008 at a cost of $37.6 billion.

One reason for the expanded rolls is a practice known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Federal law prescribes income and asset limits for food-stamp eligibility. But a person can cross-qualify for food stamps if he’s receiving benefits from the welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The good intention is to trim administrative hassle and avoid repeating eligibility tests.

Yet this provision has been diluted in regulations. TANF benefits can include everything from cash to transportation assistance. States can count a person getting a brochure or a toll-free hotline number funded by TANF money as receiving benefits. The practical effect is that states can extend food benefits to more people and skip asset tests. The Obama Administration encouraged states in letters and memos to adopt this standard, and some 40 states allow broad-based categorical eligibility.

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One state conferred auto-eligibility on anyone up to 200% of the poverty line, regardless of assets, “by having a family planning brochure available,” according to a 2015 Agriculture Department Inspector General report. These practices are depressingly common, as states run by both major parties try to grab more federal dollars.

Enter the Trump Administration with a common-sense idea: A person can only cross-qualify for food stamps if he is receiving “ongoing” and “substantial” welfare benefits. The proposal defines this as benefits worth $50 a month for six months from TANF. A person receiving child-care help or subsidized employment can also cross-qualify. In other words, those who need help from both programs will continue to receive it.

The Agriculture Department says 8% of beneficiaries or 3.1 million people next year will be eligible only because of such broad categorical eligibility. The department estimates that the rule will save taxpayers $9.4 billion over five years. States will howl, but a Foundation for Government Accountability analysis showed administrative costs tended to be higher for states that allowed such easy eligibility.

The real news is that Democrats want to keep as many people as possible on the dole regardless of need.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with her usual understatement said the Administration’s “latest act of staggering callousness would steal food off the table of working families and hungry children, and dismantle proven pathways out of poverty for millions.” But these programs are supposed to help people so they can become independent, not provide a lifetime subsidy.

The next Administration could reverse the rule, as Democrats last year refused to tighten the standards as part of the farm bill. But this is a modest and important reform that better protects the needy and taxpayers. Progressives should explain why they want to keep so many Americans dependent on government.

— The Wall Street Journal

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