The Trump administration is proposing changes to the food-stamp program that could result in 3.1 million Americans losing their benefits — including 200,000 in Pennsylvania and at least 68,000 in New Jersey.

In addition, the plan could deprive some low-income children of access to free school lunches.

The proposal is the latest of several put forward by the president to cut food stamps.

Ideas rejected by Congress

The newest changes were considered by Congress last December and rejected. But the Trump administration is advancing them anyway as part of a suggested revision to rules in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The proposal would end the practice of allowing low-income working people whose gross incomes are somewhat higher than the poverty level to receive SNAP benefits.

The administration said it is looking to save nearly $2 billion a year through the cuts, according to USDA statistics. Around 38 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, nearly 500,000 in Philadelphia, federal and state figures show.

At the same time that the USDA mentioned cost savings, the department recognized that removing people from the SNAP rolls “may also negatively impact food security.”

That statement has angered antihunger advocates.

“Wow, they don’t even care that they’ll be increasing hunger,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, the nation’s leading antihunger lobby.

Closer to home, Gov. Tom Wolf called the Trump administration plan “ludicrous,” saying it would disproportionately affect working families, the elderly, and the disabled. He added that “depriving people of the means for adequate sustenance and a healthier life is cruel and inhumane.”

While state officials estimate that the Trump administration plan would jeopardize the SNAP benefits of about 200,000 Pennsylvanians, local advocates have not determined how many Philadelphians would be affected. The number of New Jerseyans affected is in dispute, with advocates saying it’s 250,000, but state officials saying the number is closer to 68,000.

Cutting SNAP benefits could affect lunch for low-income school children because a family’s SNAP status is part of what officials use to determine student eligibility, advocates say.

‘Fair and efficient’

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the cuts would be necessary to maintain sound fiscal policy. He said a “loophole” in federal law allowed states to expand SNAP help “to people who don’t need it.” He added that the loophole “has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines.”

Purdue went on to say, “The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity — just as they do in their own homes, businesses, and communities. That is why we are changing the rules preventing abuse of a critical safety net system.”

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Vollinger said it’s misleading to call the existing provision that guides SNAP eligibility a “loophole." “It sounds like something that snuck through,” she said. “But it’s a law that was fully vetted through the [George W.] Bush administration. And Congress supported it.”

Currently, people throughout America are eligible for SNAP benefits if their gross income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line of around $25,000 for a family of four. This works out to a little more than $33,000 for such a family.

But a federal policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” allows states to raise the gross income eligibility level to as much as 200% of poverty in some cases. In Pennsylvania, the allowable gross income level for benefits is 160% of the federal poverty, or about $41,000 for a family of four. Along with Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and 38 other states use categorical eligibility.

“The administration would force Pennsylvania to go down to 130% of poverty,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. 'We already know from studies that just 130% of poverty isn’t a high enough limit for people to feed their families."

Fisher added that the administration plan would also add an asset test, meaning that people’s bank accounts, car ownership, and other holdings would be considered as their SNAP levels were determined. Pennsylvania did away with its asset test in 2015.

Traditionally, many Republicans have argued against asset tests, saying they penalize low-income people for accumulating savings to help pull themselves out of poverty.

Also, it takes extra time and effort to determine a SNAP recipient’s assets, which “clogs up county assistance offices,” Fisher said, and actually costs states more money.

The Trump administration “wants to take away long-standing law to cut SNAP benefits,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition on Human Needs in Washington. “People would be facing a precipitous cutoff.”

Paying for tax cuts?

Vollinger said she believes the administration is eliminating many SNAP benefits because it has to pay for the large tax cuts it gave well-off Americans.

It’s not the first time the Trump administration has gone after food stamps.

In March, it looked to increase work requirements for SNAP recipients. In May, it proposed a new way to calculate poverty to keep many Americans from receiving aid. Last year, Trump recommended sending boxes of food instead of SNAP benefits to people, an idea decried as impractical and likely more expensive than the SNAP program itself.

The Trump administration proposal is scheduled to be debated during a two-month comment period.

Ultimately, the plan will cause too many problems, according to Kate Scully, director of government affairs for Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief agency.

“We are so concerned," Scully said. "If the rules change, the administration will increase hunger [and] hurt the community and the country.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.