The Trump administration has proposed a new way to calculate poverty, an adjustment that could result in millions of Americans losing aid that helps keep them fed and alive, advocates say.
“This change will lead to more hunger,” said Kate Scully, director of government affairs for Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the Philadelphia region. “And it will really hurt the 700,000 food-insecure people in our area in many other ways.”
Eligibility for key programs that help low-income people — among them food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid, Head Start, free school lunch — is tied to the federal poverty level. If people are at or near the poverty level, they receive benefits.
To determine whether a person is living at the poverty level, each year the government makes a calculation dependent on salary and family size. For example, in 2019, a family of three would have to make an annual salary of $21,330 or less to be designated as living in poverty.
Every year, the poverty level increases with inflation. The Trump administration is proposing to change how the rate of inflation is calculated by choosing an inflation measure called “chained Consumer Price Index” that will rise more slowly than the current one. The chained CPI grows about a quarter of a percentage point less than the traditional inflation measure, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The result over time would be that people’s salaries, which normally increase as inflation increases, would rise at a faster rate than the poverty level.
They’d still be poor, but their salaries would be higher than the slowed-down poverty rate, making them unqualified to receive benefits.
The federal Office of Management and Budget is seeking comment on the proposed regulatory change until June 21. It’s not clear what will happen afterward.
The OMB has said that it is considering changing how inflation is calculated to ensure that all measures “are objective, accurate, relevant, and timely, thereby maintaining the integrity of official government statistics.”
“Ironically,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, "in Philadelphia, we’d still have really high poverty, but the change in the way the rate is measured would make things look better.
“Of course, no one would be doing better. In fact, many of them would be worse off because they’d have lost their eligibility for benefits. Over time, millions of children, seniors, and people with disabilities throughout the country would lose access to vital programs."
The change, advocates say, is part of the Trump administration’s years-long efforts to reduce benefits and housing subsidies, while trying to expand the work requirements needed to qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, now known as SNAP for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“They want to define poverty out of existence without doing anything to make people less poor,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes policies to help low-income Americans.
“This administration is relentless in coming up with ways to reduce the number of people getting help.”
The Trump administration’s approach on cutting benefits such as SNAP adheres to arguments forwarded by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The foundation says SNAP is “in need of commonsense reform.” The government should take steps to make sure people don’t remain dependent on federal help, Heritage thinking goes.
And while “welfare” should merge compassion and fairness, the foundation argues, benefits should not go to “able-bodied adults who refuse to take any steps to support themselves.”
Scully of Philabundance sees things differently.
Monthly SNAP allotments are too low to last 30 days in Philadelphia, she said, meaning that by the third and fourth week of every month, people have no choice but to flock to food pantries stocked by Philabundance.
If the proposed administration changes go through, Scully said, “it will mean people’s benefits will be cut, and folks will be coming to pantries all throughout the month — all of them hungry."