As local news sources have reported, City Councilmember Michael Brown has introduced a bill that will deliver more food stamp benefits to more low-income D.C. residents. This is legislation that deserves to pass, and all signs are that it will.
I got curious about how the Food Stamp Expansion Act could do what its name says, given that food stamps are a federal program. Here’s what I learned.
Basically, Brown’s bill will require the Fenty administration to take advantage of two options in the food stamp program.
For the first option, it will require the Mayor to establish a program that gives all food stamp recipients a token $1 per year of assistance under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Under the federal food stamp rules, this will entitle them to have their utility allowance calculated according to a standard formula.
The utility allowance is one of the deductions used to determine net income–the basis for determining the dollar value of the benefit a household can receive. So the end result of the LIHEAP assistance will be a larger food stamp benefit for many recipients.
For the second option, the Brown bill will require the Mayor to adopt an expanded definition of “categorical eligibility.” An issue brief by D.C. Hunger Solutions explains what this will mean. To summarize…
Under the standard federal food stamp rules, most households can’t receive food stamps unless their gross income is at or below 130% of the applicable federal poverty guideline and they have no more than $2,000 in assets (or $3,000 for households with seniors). These are the rules D.C. has been using.
They obviously exclude numerous people who need food stamps. For starters, recall that 130% of the federal poverty guideline for a family of three is just $23,803–only about 46% of what the Fair Budget Coalition has estimated as basic expenses for a D.C. parent with two children.
Note too that the asset limit requires families with even quite small “rainy day” funds to spend down their savings or go without sufficient nutritious food–a choice no one should have to make.
However, the standard rules don’t apply to families that receive cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. The simple fact of participating in these programs is enough to qualify for food stamps. Hence the term “categorical eligibility.”
States are allowed to expand their definitions of “categorical eligibility” to include any household that receives a TANF-funded service. In the case of D.C., this will be a TANF-funded brochure on available job training services. Anyone who applies for food stamps will get this brochure. And, presto, they’ll automatically become eligible if their income is at or below 200% of the relevant federal poverty guideline.
This policy change is a real win/win. Most importantly, it will allow many more D.C. residents, including recently laid-off workers, to receive the nutrition assistance they need–and without having to spend down their savings.
Second, the children of these new food stamp recipients will be automatically enrolled in the free school meal program. This will help ensure they are adequate nourished and, at the same time, stretch the family’s budget.
Lastly but not leastly, the policy change will maximize the potential impact of the food stamp boost in the federal economic stimulus package. Judging from the opinions of many economists, we should expect a lot of bang for the bucks. And getting them will cost the District virtually nothing.
So kudos to Councilmember Brown for taking the lead on this issue and to his fellow Councilmembers, who have all signed on to the legislation. They will need to make sure that their directives are implemented as quickly as possible. But I understand the agencies have said they are ready and willing.